To my mind, one of the worst things Clinton did during his time in office was the huge hole he sliced in our social safety net in 1996. It’s not that I think welfare as it then existed did not need reform, but turning it into a time-limited program was less a reform than a gutting of its fundamental premises. The recessions since then have been fairly mild, so this will be the first time we might see large numbers of people running into those time limits. It could get ugly.
Archive for December, 2008
Stephen Colbert’s Heartfelt Advice to God—related to theodicy and public relations. After a couple of other things. He thinks that we can’t move Christmas from December to June because of the horrific change in wardrobe required for Santa Claus. Yes indeedy.
The last show of the year.
Sandro Magister today has a piece on the “O Antiphons,” also known as “the Great Antiphons,”the series of antiphons sung to introduce the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to the 24th. Their deep and broad biblical basis is given in the translations offered. Lovely Gregorian Chant accompanied them in the sung Divine Office. They go back at least to the time of Charlemagne. (How casually one says this!) ”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a close paraphrase.
Commenting on them in the first half of the ninth century, Amalarius of Metz wrote: “‘O!’ is an exclamation of someone astonished. By this ‘O!’ the singer wishes to make known that the words that follow refer to some wonderful vision which calls more for the mind’s meditation than for a speaker’s tale. And because this wonder was evoked by the conception and the birth from holy Mary, these antiphons fit her hymn more than they do Zachariah’s [sung at Lauds].”
Here is today’s antiphon
O SAPIENTIA, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, who come from the mouth of the Most High (Sirach 24:5), who reach to the ends of the earth and order all things with power and sweetness (Wisdom 8:1): come and teach us the way of wisdom (Proverbs 9:6).
I’ve written about Anh (Joseph) Cao, the neophyte New Orleans Republican and former Jesuit seminarian who won a surprise victory over the once invincible but now disgraced (allegedly) Rep. Wiiliam Jefferson earlier this month in a storm-delayed Congressional election. Cao is an affecting mix of humility and politics, the latter informed but not dictated by his strong Catholic faith. Whether Cao will have a place or an influence on the future of the GOP, or a role in articulating a more coherent Catholic vision of politics, remains to be seen.
But Cao had some interesting comments this week in an interview with Dan Gilgoff, who recently began the “God & County” blog at U.S. News & World Report. Cao speaks movingly and humanly about his past “crisis of faith” and his current commitment to “the core of my faith and the core of my political view, that politicians are put into office in order to serve.”
Obviously many people will want to focus on what this avowedly pro-life Catholic will do about abortion and homosexuality. Here’s what he says:
Q: How important were traditional family values issues, like abortion and marriage, in your race?
A: Very little. I was focusing on the need to rebuild the Second Congressional District so the issues of abortion and marriage were not the focus of my campaign at all.
Q: Are those values issue high priorities for your first term in Congress?
A: My main priority in the first couple of years is to focus on rebuilding the Second Congressional District in Louisiana. Three and half years after Katrina, there are areas that remain devastated. The healthcare system is in need of reform. The educational system is in need of reform. We need to develop economically, need to look at the levies and at coastal restoration. Those are the issues right now that concern the majority of my constituents, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
The next question, for us, is whether such statements will help or hurt his political career, in the GOP and with the Catholic Church.
The Bush administration’s proposal to expand health workers’ right to avoid participating in performing abortions advanced this week, according to ProPublica.org (a non-profit investigative reporting site that deserves to be checked regularly).
While the article has some of the buzzwords we journalists use to get a certain point across (“a controversial midnight regulation”), it gives an evenhanded account of what is, well, a controversial midnight regulation.
Now if the Bush administration would only expand its respect for conscience into other areas … for example, the hundreds of soldiers who have said conscience forbids them from serving in the war in Iraq.
Notre Dame Law School is moving, lock, stock, and bookcase to a brand-new building in a few days. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic–or to find layers of meaning here. As I was packing up my books, I came across John Noonan’s A Church that Can and Cannot Change, which he delivered as the Erasmus Lectures at Notre Dame. Judge Noonan, for whom I clerked, started his career as a law professor at Notre Dame Law School. In fact, he wrote his classic book Contraception while working in this building.
A Church that Can and Cannot Change talks about development of Catholic moral doctrine on issues ranging from marriage to religious liberty; it’s a good, and very readable, account based on years of research. It would make a good Christmas present. Here’s a good review by James Keenan, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College, in the Journal of Religion.
John T. Noonan’s works on usury, contraception, religious freedom, abortion, divorce, and bribery have set the gold standard for research in theological ethics. While sensitive to the hermeneutical context of any particular teaching, he has traced and articulated the evolution of normative teachings across cultures and history.
Last week Grant Gallicho posted here about a Boston Globe op-ed by Judge Michael Merz, head of the lay-led National Review Board that is supposed to ensure that the bishops follow their own policies on child protection. Merz’s view that the hierarchy was doing a good and no one should have any worries–and that any bishops who did anything wrong should not resign–was immediately questioned in many quarters. Now Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform group that grew up in reaction to the scandal and whose protests and efforts were part of the reason the NRB was created, has issued a response to Merz’s op-ed that questions its accuracy. VOTF’s leadership says it is “deeply disappointed” in Merz’s statements and continues:
Catholic bishops complicit in the clergy sex abuse scandal do indeed need to resign or be replaced. Unlike Judge Merz, we at VOTF do not assume that those responsible for coverups and scandal are in any way qualified to lead the cleanup.
Judge Merz’s remarks are especially troubling in light of the requirements for his Review Board to monitor compliance of the bishops with the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Self-reporting by diocesan officials is not the same as a verifiable assessment, and it is troubling to learn that the NRB regards such unverified results as evidence of “forceful” response by the bishops or of their commitment to the programs. True commitment should include verifiable participation and independently audited results in all dioceses and penalties for those bishops who do not comply.
Finally, we do not agree with Judge Merz that the Church is demonstrating an “unrelenting … quest to ensure that all children” are safe when the President of the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George, was forced this year to acknowledge serious failures in his own diocese to immediately remove priests credibly accused of molesting children.
I had just finished ordering our annual sheaf of seasonally tacky and nicely inexpensive Christmas cards–our three-year-old on a carousel in various stages of glee, below her a wish for joy to the world and peace in 2009 and all that stuff–when I received a link to Father Jim Martin’s annual Scrooge-fest on NPR. Titled “More Virgin Mary, Less Virgin Islands” (it came out on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), Jim grumbles (well, in his very congenial way) about Christmas cards from even pious friends that have no Christmas scene but rather “a photo of a family on some beach in the Caribbean. Or a picture of somebody’s house. Or someone’s dog wearing reindeer horns.” He continues:
Look, I love family photos during the holidays. Plus, I actually read those annual holiday letters, all of which start with “What a busy year it’s been!” Seeing photos of my friends and their families and even enjoying a few sunny beach scenes when it’s cold and dark outside is a highlight of December.
But I enjoy the photos more when they’re inside the card, not the card itself. Because more and more, even devout Christians have been replacing Jesus, Mary and Joseph with themselves. Doesn’t it strike you as weird to set aside the Holy Family in favor of your family? Does a photo of Cabo San Lucas trump the story told by the original San Lucas? Is Christmas really about you?
I guess we all have our pet peeves. I tend (well, it’s more like an iron-clad reaction) to roll my eyes at those family newsletters that recount how wonderful the past year has been for them, and all the great places they went and things they bought. Our family used to sit around the dinner table coming up with our sad-sack tales (all too true) that we’d write up and send out the next Christmas. We never did, but it was fun to contemplate. And I must say, receiving the occassional card from justifiably proud new parents but with the phrase, “For unto us a child is born…” on the top makes me wince more than a bit.
Still, I think the good Jesuit is being a bit Jansenist. (And he is younger than I am. Barely.) Christmas has always been as much about family and secular festivities as it has been a strictly solemn, religious feast. I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I lived in Rome that I finally realized, during a holiday largely shorn of Santa-mania, that I came to truly appreciate Easter and place it in a proper context with Christmas. And as a single fellow with access to the Vatican Tipografia I could get their really awesome Christmas cards–high-quality, with boffo art from the in-house collection, and cheap.
But now life is different, and I like sending out a holiday card with my kid on it. In fact, I just sent one to Jim Martin, just to spite him. But I did use one of those lovely Botticelli Madonna and Child stamps (with John the Baptist this year).
Shoe-Hurling Iraqi Becomes a Folk Hero
“Hitting someone with a shoe is a deep insult in the Arab world, signifying that the person being struck is as low as the dirt underneath the sole of a shoe. Compounding the insult were Mr. Zaidi’s words as he hurled his footwear at President Bush: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” While calling someone a dog is never polite, among Arabs, who traditionally consider dogs unclean, the words were an even stronger slight.”
Cat lovers please take note.
“The senior lawyer, Dheyaa Saadi, head of the Union of Lawyers in Iraq and one of the country’s most high-profile lawyers, said that he had volunteered to defend Mr. Zaidi if the judge elects to detain him pending further court hearings.
“I will introduce myself as his lawyer and demand the case be closed and Muntader be released because he did not commit a crime,” said Mr. Saadi. “He only freely expressed himself to the occupier, and he has such a right according to international law.”
“Under Iraqi law, Mr. Zaidi could face up to seven years in prison for the crime of initiating an aggressive act against a head of a foreign state on an official visit.”
On the street in Baghdad:
The next day, Lt. Miller told me that, out of nowhere, the man in the last house had announced that he wanted to apologize for the Shoe Incident, insisting that it not reflect poorly on all Iraqis.
I asked Lt. Miller what he said in return. He assured the man that it was OK, that they do not consider one Iraqi’s behavior indicative of the country, that this was what democracy can look like, etc.
And, he said, “I told him that a lot of the soldiers thought it was pretty funny.”
On Wednesday, the Iraqi prosecutor called for a seven year prison term for al-Zaidi. Maybe Bush could issue one of his departing presidential pardons!
Also: “Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi suffered, according to his brother, “suffered a broken hand, broken ribs and internal bleeding, as well as an eye injury” and had to go to hospital after he protested Bush’s press conference in Baghdad by throwing shoes at the president.” http://www.juancole.com/
Somewhere out there a new, doubtless different, Balzac is furiously clipping newspaper pieces for his 21st century update of the 19th century cycle of manners and morals. He/she would find some useful tidbits in today’s New York Times.
Ian Urbina takes us to a “Palm Beach Enclave, Stunned by an Inside Job.” Here, in Bernie Madoff’s private preserve, a sense of being duped and a spreading mistrust prevail.
The shame of the Madoff scandal seemed especially bitter here in part because the club is known for its noblesse oblige in requiring members to give tens of thousands of dollars each year to charity.
The attention was also particularly unwelcome for a community whose grand homes sit hidden behind 20-foot-tall ficus hedges and steel gates.
In cultivating an aloof mystique, Mr. Madoff had fooled those who fancied themselves the wiser.
Typically, investors needed at least $1 million to approach Mr. Madoff. Being a member of this club also helped.
But even with those prerequisites, there was little guarantee that Mr. Madoff would take the client.
But the dis-ease is spreading beyond the confines of the exclusive club:
Ross B. Intelisano, a lawyer representing a collection of its members, said he thought relations at the country club and on the island generally might never be the same again.
“He had this reputation that he’s one of these guys, that he’s what Wall Street’s all about,” he said about Mr. Madoff. “It’s all about a handshake, and people trusted him.”
That sort of trust may be gone now, Mr. Intelisano said.
“People may not really trust the guys they play golf with,” he said.
One observer sums up the Palm Beach condition:
“Palm Beach is a place of fantasy,” Mr. Leamer said. “There are no hospitals, funeral homes, people don’t talk about the negative.”
Aspiring Balzacs may find the whole saga here. But try to keep the negativity down.
The Times’ Paul Vitello had an interesting piece yesterday on how churches are seeing a surge in attendance as the economy tanks. But it is mainly the “enthusiastic” denominations of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism that are doing well. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing more door-knocking because out-of-work folks are at home:
A recent spot check of some large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation indicated attendance increases there, too. But they were nowhere near as striking as those reported by congregations describing themselves as evangelical, a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion, or being “born again.”
Part of the evangelicals’ new excitement is rooted in a communal belief that the big Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings, were touched off by economic panics. Historians of religion do not buy it, but the notion “has always lived in the lore of evangelism,” said Tony Carnes, a sociologist who studies religion.
A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.
The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist’s lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.
Alas, the Protestant ethic–if that’s what it is–bites us lazy papists again. Or has it? The Boston Globe reports (hat tip to First Things) that sales of communion wafers are up, though not quite as much as after 9/11. Then again, the little holiday known as Christmas may have something to do with that…
Two New York Times reporters, Eric Lipton and Raymond Hernandez, do a masterful job in today’s paper of showing how the influential Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) helped fund Democrats’ drive to win control of the Senate by encouraging policies that contributed to the collapse of the economy. They write:
An exceptional fund raiser — a “jackhammer,” someone who knows him says, for whom “ ‘no’ is the first step to ‘yes,’ ” — Mr. Schumer led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the last four years, raising a record $240 million while increasing donations from Wall Street by 50 percent. That money helped the Democrats gain power in Congress, elevated Mr. Schumer’s standing in his party and increased the industry’s clout in the capital.
But in building support, he has embraced the industry’s free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.
Other lawmakers took the lead on efforts like deregulating the complicated financial instruments called derivatives, which are widely seen as catalysts to the crisis.
But Mr. Schumer, a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, repeatedly took other steps to protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules, a review of his record shows. Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees. He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.
Schumer’s defense seems to be that as a senator from New York, it’s his job to protect Wall Street, which drives the state’s economy. But the article makes clear that he is also heavily motivated by the desire to raise funds for himself and other Senate Democrats.
Schumer is a very popular figure where I come from – Brooklyn, where he once was my congressman. But given Schumer’s role in driving the economy into the ground and his record on the various “life” issues discussed so frequently on dotCommonweal (he opposed the ban on “partial-birth” abortions; supports the death penalty and voted to limit Death Row appeals; and voted to authorize the war in Iraq), it would be interesting to hear just what recommends him.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting column on the Madoff scheme, “How Bernie Madoff Made Smart Folks Look Dumb.”
Here’s its beginning:
What do George Carlin and Bernard Madoff have in common?
The late comedian immortalized oxymorons, those absurd word pairs like “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence.” Mr. Madoff just put the silliest of all financial oxymorons into the spotlight: “sophisticated investor.”
And its ending:
If you invest with anyone who claims never to lose money, reports amazingly smooth returns, will not explain his strategy, refuses to disclose basic information or discuss potential risks, you’re not sophisticated. You’re an oxymoron.
If I remember rightly, Ponzi preyed on immigrants with no pretense to sophistication nor membership in elite country clubs. They just wanted to put food on the table — the poor of the land.
The thing that strikes me about John the Baptist is that he knew that he was not the Messiah. This seems obvious to us because we read the scriptures in light of our knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, i.e. the Christ. So when faced with a statement like we read in today’s Gospel–”I am not the Christ”–we tend to respond, “well, uh, yes old chum, of course you’re not.”
I suspect it wasn’t that simple. Few, of course, start out thinking they are the Messiah. Even if you grow up in a culture where hope for a Messiah is not solely the province of people a few plates short of a full china set, you have no reason to believe that you are the person for which so many are hoping.
But then you discover a talent, a gift. Your words have the power to move people. Your way of life has the power to inspire them. First it’s just a few, some broken souls who grasp at any hope that comes along. Soon, though, they are numbering in the dozens, and then the hundreds. The words you speak seem to come from somewhere else and you see people in the crowd weeping and beating their breasts. Inspired by examples in your own tradition, you raise your voice against the central religious and political institutions of your society. Rather than driving people away, though, your prophetic courage draws even larger crowds.
It must have taken extraordinarily spiritual strength for John to hold on to the conviction that he was not the Messiah. He had to ignore the size of the crowds, the hopeful faces of those coming for baptism, and the growing political and religious crisis occasioned by his preaching. He had to shut out the resounding din of all of that and listen to the still, small voice of God with its simple message: “you are not the one.”
I wonder how many of us hear that message and chose not to listen. Messiah complexes come in all sizes and few of us–thankfully–face the kind of challenges John faced. From the executive with a pathological inability to delegate to the parish volunteer who runs her ministry as a personal fiefdom, we all face the temptation to ignore DeGaulle’s famous dictum: “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
Those of us who feel–rightly or wrongly–that we have been given great gifts of intellect, creativity or leadership are particularly at risk. We are apt to feel that God, Fate, or History is calling us to a higher destiny. As the years go by, though, and that corner office eludes us or that great novel goes unpublished, we are apt to become embittered: “Why would God give me these gifts and then frustrate my efforts to make full use of them?”
Christians tend to talk piously about dying to self, but most of us are not terribly good at it. We’re genuinely shocked when we come to the realization that God’s plan for our gifts bears little resemblance to our own. We might do well to consider the example of John, who faced the temptation of believing that he embodied the fullness of Israel’s hopes and was nevertheless able to walk away and accept the lesser role that God was asking him to play. We might do even better if we took his words as a simple daily prayer: “I am not the Christ.”
David Gibson has already reported on the death this morning of Cardinal Avery Dulles after some months of growing physical paralysis that did not diminish his mental alertness or his spiritual radiance.
I had the privilege and grace of being able to visit with him several times during his stay at the Jesuit infirmary near Fordham. I always came away with a sense of being blessed by his presence and witness.
And, after each visit, the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians always sprang to mind:
So death is at work in us, but life in you…Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed on more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.
Therefore we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen, but to what is unseen. For what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 5: 12-18)
I haven’t read it yet, but here is the link to the CDF’s Instruction on Bioethical Issues, Dignitas Personae.
Word has come down that Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, one of the great figures of the Catholic Church, certainly in the United States, died this morning in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham. He was 90, and his generally good health had begun to fail of late. America’s blog has the announcement. I was always as impressed with Father Dulles’ character and his faith as I was by what I knew of his work, in large part because he was also a convert–like me–but also unfailingly kind–which I am not. I will leave it to others who knew him well and who are far more expert in his theology to comment, or better still, to write more eloquent and instructive posts.
For now, requiescat in pace, and AMDG.
UPDATE: America has also posted an archive of Dulles’ articles in the magazine and an interview with him. Pope Benedict XVI made a special side trip during his April visit to the US to greet Dulles, whose health had begun to fail largely due to the effects of childhood polio.
My wife and I like to recite Compline (a.k.a Night Prayer) from the Liturgy of the Hours as the last thing we do before we turn out the lights. The one part of Compline that changes from season to season is the Marian Antiphon that is recited or chanted at the end. From the beginning of Advent until the Friday before the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the antiphon is the Alma Redemptoris Mater, a Latin hymn to Mary written in the 11th century by the monk Hermann Contractus.
In the weeks leading up to Advent, I decided to teach myself (with some help from Jeff Tucker) to chant the antiphon in the original Latin. The process of learning forced me into a close encounter with the text and its deep–one might even say effusive–Marian piety:
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
“Kindly Mother of the Redeemer, who art ever of heaven
The open gate, and the star of the sea, aid a fallen people,
Which is trying to rise again; thou who didst give birth,
While Nature marveled how, to thy Holy Creator,
Virgin both before and after, from Gabriel’s mouth
Accepting the All hail, be merciful towards sinners.”
(Translation by Cardinal Newman via New Liturgical Movement)
Throughout most of my life, this sort of thing has not been my spiritual cup of tea. I grew up at a time when visible expressions of Marian devotion seemed to vanish from the Church. Many prayers and devotions to Mary drip with the kind of pious sentimentalism that makes me want to run screaming from the room. For a variety of reasons, I’ve always been more comfortable with the bold, prophetic, and, yes, masculine Jesus than with the Mary who prays “let it be done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). I take some comfort from the fact that Pope Benedict has faced his own challenges with Marian devotion.
As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to have a greater appreciation of the contemplative virtues that Mary embodies. Sometimes my preference for vigorous action runs up against its limits. My wife suffers from a chronic illness that, while not life threatening, creates significant challenges for her. Medical treatments have had only limited success. In all likelihood, this is something that we will simply have to live with. The instinct of a husband is to protect his wife and it has been difficult for me to accept that this is a burden that I cannot lift from her shoulders. I will not deny that sometimes the prayer “let it be done to me according to thy word” is made through gritted teeth, but it is made none the less.
Raymond Brown once observed that Mary often appears as a sign of hope for, as the Alma Redemptoris Mater puts it, fallen peoples who are struggling to rise again: Czestochowa, Lourdes, Knock, and, of course, Guadalupe. Mary’s great prayer, the Magnificat, embodies the hopes of Israel for the coming of a King who will “scatter the proud in their conceit,” “lift up the lowly,” and fill the hungry with good things.”
I will confess, though, that all of this is more intellectus than affectus. I recently read a story in Jim Forest’s book Praying With Icons that I felt captured my dilemma. Forest recounts the tale of a Dutch Protestant friend named Hannes who travels to Russia and visits an Orthodox church in Moscow. He encounters an icon of Mary holding the Christ child and stands before it in contemplation. An elderly Russian woman comes up to him and begins to talk to him. She asks him if he is a Christian. He assures her that he is and that there are many Christians in his country.
“And do they believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” She crossed herself as she said the words.
“Oh yes, Hannes assured her, but the doubt on her face increased; why had he not crossed himself?”
“Then she looked at the icon and asked, “And do you love the Mother of God?”
Now Hannes was at a loss and stood for a moment in silence. Calvinist that he was, he could hardly say yes. At last he said, “I have great respect for her.”
“Such a pity,” she replied in a pained voice,” but I will pray for you.” Immediately, she crossed herself, kissed the icon and stood before it in prayer.”
“Do you know,” Hannes told me, “from that day I have loved the Mother of God.”
Shortly after I read that story I purchased a small reproduction of the Our Lady of Vladimir icon, which now sits on my bureau next to a small icon of Christ. I contemplate the image of Mary in the morning and evening. My prayer to her is not for miraculous intercession or protection against the forces of evil. I simply ask that I may love the Mother of God.
The New York Times today has the story that the French foreign minister, a founder of Doctors without Borders, has shocked (shocked!) many by saying in an interview that “there is permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France” and that “One cannot decide the foreign policy of a country only as a function of human rights. To lead a country obviously distances one from a certain Utopianism” — in French — “angélisme.”
It reminded me that John Courtney Murray shocked many Catholics when he expressed his agreement with the question a journalist friend had asked him:
Since the day of Roger Williams and his separation of the “garden” (the Christian community) and the “wilderness” (society or “the world”), prevalent American moral theory has never found a way to bridge the chasm between the order of private life and the order of law, public policy, and institutional action, especially when the question concerns the nation-state. The private life is governed by the will of God as stated in the Scriptures. It is to bear the stamp of the Christian values canonized by the Scriptures—patience, gentleness, sacrifice, forbearance, trust, compassion, humility, forgiveness of injuries, and, supremely and inclusively, love. On the other hand, it is the plainest of historical facts that the public life of the nationstate is not governed by these values. Hardly less plain is the fact that it cannot be. What, asked my journalist friend quite sensibly, has the Sermon on the Mount got to do with foreign policy? Pacifism, for instance, may be a dictate of the individual conscience, but it cannot be a public policy. What then is the will of God for the nation-state? How and where is it to be discovered? There is no charter of political morality in the Scriptures.
Murray’ essay (chapter 12 of We Hold These Truths) includes a criticism of people whom he called “ambiguists,” of whom Reinhold Niebuhr was an example, and to whom Murray wished to contrast the clarity and firmness of a revival of natural law theory.
Thoughts on either argument?
Here’s more on torture, etc.:
”A report released Thursday by leaders of the Senate Armed Services committee said that top Bush administration officials, including Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, bear major responsibility for the abuses committed by American troops in interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other military detention centers.
“The report was issued jointly by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the panel, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican. The report represents the most thorough review by Congress to date of the origins of the abuse of prisoners in American military custody, and it explicitly rejects the Bush administration’s contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe.
“The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the report says, “was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own” but grew out of interrogation policies approved by Mr. Rumsfeld and other top officials “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees.”
Link to report: http://levin.senate.gov/newsroom/release.cfm?id=305735
A must-read. Here’s the conclusion:
The truth is most of the individual mistakes boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal. Looking back at that belief during hearings this fall on Capitol Hill, Alan Greenspan said out loud, “I have found a flaw.” Congressman Henry Waxman pushed him, responding, “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right; it was not working.” “Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan said. The embrace by America—and much of the rest of the world—of this flawed economic philosophy made it inevitable that we would eventually arrive at the place we are today.
Go read the whole thing.
This piece by Ross Douthat in the Week in Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times is the best thing I have seen about the politics of abortion in the aftermath of the election. Douthat puts paid to the idea that prolifers cost the Republicans the election and should now be hushed or banished by the party. Just as it is unreasonable to assume that all the Catholics who voted for Obama were prochoice, it is also unreasonable to assume that McCain would have won if only he had been less prolife.
John McCain probably mentioned earmarks about a thousand times more often than he let the word “abortion” slip his lips. The Republican ticket’s weak attempts to play the culture-war card — a Bill Ayers here, a Joe the Plumber there — had nothing whatsoever to do with Roe v. Wade. And why should abortion opponents, of all conservative factions, take the blame for the financial meltdown, or the bungled occupation of Iraq, or the handling of Hurricane Katrina?
Douthat’s main point, though, is about the continuing importance of Roe v. Wade. Many people, including some prominent prolifers, have lately argued that the prolife movement should get over its opposition to Roe and instead seek legislative compromises that could reduce the number of abortions. Now, the call for compromise is always welcome. Those who believe that any political compromise on this issue is a form of moral impurity or even treachery have a problem not just with the country’s abortion laws but with the essential dynamics of democracy: a movement that is too good for gradualism is too good for the United States. But one problem with Roe, at least as it has been understood by the lower courts and in the Supreme Court’s later rulings, is precisely that it prevents any serious compromise, either at the state or federal level.
So the question isn’t whether the anti-abortion movement can change, adapt and compromise. It’s already done that. The question is whether it can afford to compromise on the national issue that keeps serious pro-lifers in the Republican fold, and requires an abortion litmus test for Republican presidential nominees — namely, the composition of the courts. And here the pro-life movement is essentially trapped — not by its own inflexibility, but by the inflexibility of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence.In theory, there are many middle grounds imaginable in America’s abortion wars, from bans that make exceptions for rape and fetal deformities to legal systems modeled on the French system, in which abortion is available but discouraged in the first 10 weeks and sharply restricted thereafter.The public is amenable to compromise: majorities support keeping abortion legal in some cases, but polling by CBS News and The Times during the presidential campaign showed that more Americans supported new restrictions on abortion than said it should be available on demand. And while some pro-lifers would reject any bargain, many more would be delighted to strike a deal that extends legal protection to more of the unborn, even if it stopped short of achieving the movement’s ultimate goals.But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible — no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.
It is not irrational for a prolifer to believe that Roe will never be overturned, and that the prolife movement should therefore concentrate on changing the country’s culture rather than its laws. In fact, it is quite reasonable to assume that if Roe is to be reversed, it won’t be soon. But it is not reasonable to pretend that the only thing keeping the movement from legal and political compromise is its own intransigence.
Today the Boston Globe published a curious op-ed by the head of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Review Board, Judge Michael Merz. The occasion for the piece is the release of the film Doubt, adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 play about an accused priest, set in 1964 (I reviewed it here).
The movie’s plot is largely fictional. Sadly, too many stories that surfaced since 2002 were not fictional. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, something that caused the downfall of one of the most powerful bishops in this country, Bernard Cardinal Law; moved hundreds of abuse victims to step forward; and resulted in the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements by various dioceses, prompted apologies from the highest levels in the church, and led to an extraordinary meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and abuse victims from Boston just last April.
Merz is right. The abuse crisis is the greatest scandal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. But note the strange construction of the last sentence in that paragraph. The scandal, Merz writes, “caused” Cardinal Law’s “downfall.” It also “caused” victims to come forward. It “resulted in” financial settlements for victims ($1 billion and counting, not “hundreds of millions of dollars”). It “prompted apologies from the highest levels in the church.” And it “led to” an unprecedented meeting between Pope Benedict and victims from Boston. When you put it that way, the sexual-abuse crisis almost sounds like a positive thing.
Of course, that is absurd. Merz has it entirely backward. The scandal did not cause Law’s downfall. Law was responsible for a large part of the scandal. That is why he resigned (twice, apparently–the first time John Paul II refused). Likewise, it is bizarre to speak of the scandal as having caused financial settlements for victims. According to the John Jay report, about 4 percent of U.S. Catholic priests (4,392) were credibly accused of molesting more then ten thousand minors. Presumably Merz would acknowledge that the courage of victims may have had something to do with “causing” the settlements. And what really “prompted” apologies from bishops? The media’s unsparing reports? The staggering costs? Sheer embarrassment? Finally, yes, Pope Benedict’s meeting with victims was impressive. It’s too bad his predecessor had not done the same.
Merz writes to reassure Catholics and the wider public of “the intention of the nation’s bishops to address this problem forcefully.”
These intentions have been translated into strong actions by the bishops. For example, any priest or member of a religious order against whom a credible accusation has ever been made is no longer working with children; many have been removed from the priesthood.
Merz helpfully details the significant progress made by the bishops’ conference: nearly 2 million clergy and laypeople trained in safe-environment programs; nearly 6 million trained to recognize predators; backround checks on more than 1.5 million church voluneers, workers, educators, clergy, and seminarians. Such achievements should not be minimized.
But neither must the failures of bishops–even “the bishops.” The way Merz uses the term reminded me of the many times I’ve seen it in articles submitted to Commonweal. Editors have to be mindful of nuance; the term “the bishops” can be accurately used in some instances. And many defenders of “the bishops” rushed to point that out as the Globe and other news outlets churned out story after story on priest-abusers and their enablers. They had a point. One shouldn’t judge the entirety of the bishops’ conference by the actions of an individual bishop, even Cardinal Law.
Yet Catholics have good reasons to remain vigilant. Last year the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660 million settlement, yet the public is still waiting for the clergy records the archdiocese promised it would release as part of that settlement. In April, during the pope’s visit to the United States, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seemed to minimize the actions of bishops who failed to protect children from abusers. Then in August, a deposition of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago revealed his serious failures and confusions with respect to the case of a priest-abuser who molested children as recently as 2005. The cardinal is now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Merz acknowledges that “many Catholics expect more,” and that they wonder why more bishops haven’t resigned. Not Merz, apparently. “I, on the other hand, believe it is better for bishops to take responsibility for fixing the problem. This may not satisfy everyone.” In his op-ed, Merz offers no explanation for why he arrived at that conclusion. More troubling is that this way of thinking echoes Cardinal Law’s own response to calls for his resignation in early 2002. Obviously Catholics expect their bishops to take responsibility for their tragic failures. They know that sometimes accepting responsibility means going away.
There can be no doubt that the institutional church has made major progress in dealing with clergy abuse–those successes can’t be ignored. By the same token, no one should have any illusions about the nature, extent, and present status of the scandal. Least of all the chairman of the National Review Board.
I, among others, have posed the question (here and here) of what the future of Catholic politics might look like–if it has any future–in light of the great splits between and among Catholic voters and leaders during the recent presidential campaign. There seem to be few good answers, and clearly much will depend on the outcome of the current debate with the Republican Party as to whether it will cool down its rhetoric on abortion and gay marriage and other hot-button issues to draw in more voters.
I thought one possible answer was indicated by the election of a dedicated social justice Catholic, Tom Perriello, in Virginia’s generally conservative Fifth CD. While I was in New Orleans this past weekend (pure coincidence, I swear), there was another potential indication, as 41-year-old Anh Cao, a Vietnamese refugee and former Jesuit seminarian (now married with children) defeated the scandal-tainted incumbent, William J. Jefferson–that’d be the Rep. Jefferson who, in a flourish worthy of Illinois politics, allegedly skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of which was found wrapped in aluminium foil in the freezer of his Capitol Hill office. (Hey, you want to keep it fresh.)
The election was delayed until now by Hurricane Gustav (poor New Orleans), but an equally big shock to the city was that A) Jefferson, an African-American, would lose in his predominantly black district and in a city inured to corruption (it was former governor Edwin Edwards–now serving time in a federal penitentiary–who said, ”The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy”) and B) that the district would elect a Republican over a Democrat, and a soft-spoken fellow like Cao at that.
But this is apparently a year for miracles. And Cao is a fascinating fellow, as this NYTimes profile shows:
Mr. Cao was a refugee from Vietnam at age 8, a former Jesuit seminarian, a philosophy student with a penchant for Camus and Dostoyevsky, an unknown activist lawyer for one of the least visible immigrant communities here and a Republican in a heavily Democratic district. [snip] He is only a recent convert to the Republican Party, having been a registered independent for most of his adult life, and has no position — at least not one he cares to share yet — on President-elect Barack Obama’s agenda. His politics seem less a matter of ideology than of low-key temperament and a Jesuit-inspired desire to “help and serve people,” as he put it.
Republican leaders are understandably touting Cao as the “Great GOP Hope,” though particular circumstances may have had as much to do with Cao’s win as anything. Moreover, Lousiana governor Bobby Jindal is supposed to be the New Hope. And as Mark Silk points out, the men are both Asian, both Catholic, both Republican–but quite different.
In a sense the pair are a case study in how and whether a new Catholic politics will emerge, and if the GOP can be the incubator.
PPS: Good Daily Dish entry on “Caopublicans”
I have younger colleagues who speak with fondness of their graduate school days. Mine I prefer to forget. I studied at Yale during a time of intense turmoil in Society, in Church, and in University. The Religious Studies Department was in disarray. And my last “public” act was as a student marshal on the New Haven Green in May 1970, while the National Guard patrolled the streets and tear gas made the air acrid.
The nadir, of course, was 1968 with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. But two deaths, in December of that year, also caused great grief. Karl Barth and Thomas Merton died on this day, worlds apart physically, but sharing much spiritual kinship.
To my mind, on December 10th 1968, they appeared symbolically as spokesmen for God’s transcendent mystery, in a culture that was fast trivializing that sense. They also spoke realistically about the human plight when such talk seemed to run counter to a facile celebration of human potential.
I was taking that semester a reading course on Barth with Hans Frei, later to go on to fame as a stellar member of the “Yale School,” but then an aspiring Associate Professor. Frei, who together with George Lindbeck was later to be one of the readers for my doctoral dissertation, insisted that Barth was the Protestant theologian that Catholics, in the wake of Vatican II, should most read. When I asked “why?”, he replied: “lest they repeat in 20 years all the mistakes that it took Protestant liberalism 200 years to make!”
Here is a quote from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation that I think Barth might second:
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please.
We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.
If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!
A positive sign of the times: both Barth and Merton are commemorated in today’s edition of L’Osservatore Romano.
John Milton, that great scourge of the Catholic Church, and one of the greatest religious poets in the language, was born four hundred years ago today in Cheapside, London — the son of a scrivener (and former Catholic). Milton knew five languages besides English (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian) and put his Hebrew to good use in translating some of the Psalms. Here, in honor of the quatercentenary, is his translation of Psalm I, done into rhyming verse in 1653:
Blessed is the man who hath not walked astray
In counsel of the wicked, and i’ the way
Of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat
Of scorners hath not sat; but in the great
Jehovah’s law is ever his delight,
And in his law he studies day and night.
He shall be as a tree which planted grows
By watery streams, and in his season knows
To yield his fruit; and his leaf shall not fall,
And what he takes in hand shall prosper all.
Not so the wicked; but, as chaff which fanned
The wind drives, so the wicked shall not stand
In judgment, or abide their trial then,
Nor sinners in the assembly of just men.
For the Lord knows the upright way of the just
And the way of bad men to ruin must.
Kevin Drum has an interesting chart on the relationship between strength of party identification and frequency of prayer. The results may surprise you.
Peter Steinfels’s “Beliefs” column in this weekend’s New York Times is a moving recollection of a tragic Catholic-school fire in 1958 Chicago, and its effect on the survivors — including then-editor of Commonweal John Cogley.
About a year before the fire, John Cogley, who would later become religious news editor at The New York Times, made a nostalgic visit to Our Lady of Angels, where he had been baptized and attended the parish school.
He mulled the fact that here “hundreds of us from the bleak streets of Chicago were first introduced to the glory and beauty of Catholicism: here we were incorporated into the great Western tradition that stretches back, back, back to the saints and prophets of old, so that in later years when I was fortunate enough to visit Rome, Paris, Istanbul and Jerusalem, it was not wholly as a stranger but as one coming home that I knelt before their altars.”
“Then I turned around and forgot about Our Lady of the Angels and the kids playing outside,” he wrote in the Dec. 18, 1958, issue of Commonweal, “until the day the terrible thing happened.”
In reading about the experiences of survivors in the wake of this tragedy, I was reminded of what I’ve heard about the General Slocum disaster. The Slocum was a steamship that caught fire in New York’s East River in 1904. More than 1000 people died, most of them women and children on an outing with their German-Lutheran church group. I only happened to learn about this when Benedict XVI visited Manhattan last year and made a special stop at a traditionally German Catholic parish in Yorkville. An article I read explained briefly that Yorkville (on the far-Upper East Side) had become NYC’s “German neighborhood” in the wake of the Slocum tragedy — unable to remain in the Lower East Side neighborhood where they’d lived before the fire, the survivors relocated and began again uptown. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this before. But surely I would have if I had grown up in a German New York family. And maybe I had just passed over any reference to it until that mention in the 2007 article caught my eye. I know I’d seen the memorial in Tompkins Square Park and wondered, idly, what it represented. Now I know.
Father Komonchak beat me to the punch in citing the NY version of the Senate Replacement Sweepstakes, as detailed most recently in the NYTimes. I wouldn’t say the political machinations rise to the level of actually profiteering from public office, as the Illinois governor (I refuse to attempt to spell his name) appears to have done. What I think is fascinating about the NY case is how often “outsiders” have made themselves a home here–and then been elected! Hey, they’ve often been pretty good, so why not import talent? Some beg to differ, most notably the denizens of the Old Town bar, a favorite watering hole (especially beloved of Fordham alums and Jesuits, it seems). As I stumbled, er, strode purposefully, out of the Old Town the other night I saw this pasquinade in the window, and had to take the picture. It sums it up pretty well. (And the bridge reference was to the November renaming of the Triborough Bridge–a perfectly good and descriptive name for a workaday span–after Robert F. Kennedy. So it goes.)
NB: As Gene Palumbo noted below, click on the picture to enlarge it and make reading easier, indeed, possible. My computer skills are still primitive.
William Saletan at Slate writes about the case of a 70 year old woman (yes, you read that right) who recently gave birth thanks to assistive reproductive technology. He concludes with the following observation:
Maybe, as we extend our reach in this area, we’ll learn to control it. We’ll stop seeing infertility as a binary struggle between cultural fatalism and scientific treatment. We’ll see an ecology of procreation and parenting, with some boundaries worth respecting, even when we know how to defeat them.
I like the phrase “ecology of procreation and parenting.” We’ve already seen the risks involved in thinking the natural world is something that can be completely subjected to human control and manipulation. The risks may be even greater when we begin to apply those techniques to human beings. Something to think about.