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Elizabeth Johnson: "Is God's Charity Broad Enough for Bears?"

At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”

The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?

“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.

In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?

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Did Francis Show Us 'A Better Politics'?

We should listen to the pope, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote on Tuesday this week, for, in the words of the headline as it appears in her Nation column, “Francis shows us a better politics.” Peace, negotiation, cooperation, and, much noted for its appearance in his statements as both noun and verb, “dialogue”—the absence of these in our social, civil, and political discourse is made the more conspicuous by what many see as Francis’s employment of them. Accurately or inaccurately, dialogue has come to be understood as his default mode.

Well, there’s politics, and there’s politics; there’s dialogue, and there’s dialogue. The news (now confirmed by the Vatican and noted earlier by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels) that Francis met with Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis doesn’t seem all that surprising in light of the pope’s comments on conscientious objection during his flight home. There wasn’t a whole lot of parsing needed there; it was clear whom he was referencing, even if he didn’t mention Davis’s name. But the secrecy of the meeting, combined with the decision not to publicize it until after Francis left the United States (and then only after media requests for confirmation), prove vanden Heuvel half-right: he showed us a better politician than most have already given him credit for.

Conscientious objection is not the same thing as (take your pick) obstructionism, narcissism, or a martyr complex, which the Family Research Council was already set to indulge with an award to Davis in Washington during Francis’s visit. The timing proved opportune, and so Davis went home with a pair of rosaries from the pope as well. “Stay strong,” he is reported to have told her after their fifteen-minute meeting.

“Francis’s words … may fall on more receptive soil than the media think,” vanden Huevel concludes, “and the candidates who vie to present the most pugnacious postures may find themselves losing, not winning, support.” She wrote a day too early. Francis’s actions, not nearly so nuanced in this case as the messages lurking in his addresses or remarks, will find a plenty receptive audience as well, if maybe not the one everyone assumed he was playing to. "Pay attention to the people Francis visits," E. J. Dionne wrote here a little over a week ago. Noted. 

Civil Disobedience, Vatican Style

On his way back to Rome, Frank the Great declared civil disobedience a human right, and at least here in the U.S. conscientious objectors to war would certainly agree. When he said this all eyes turned to Kim Davis, Rebel County Clerk, although he never mentioned her name. 

It appears that he met with her (shook hands) while in DC. According to the NYTimes story, the encounter was arranged by Vatican officials and not the U.S. bishops. Hmmmm! Wow!

Pope Francis at the Finish Line: Openness, Openness, Openness

PHILADELPHIA—In his homily closing the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis drew together the central themes of his historic visit to the United States: an ethic of care for the environment and the stranger, a vision of the family as a “factory of hope,” as he put it last night, and an openness to follow the Holy Spirit, even when that means facing the unfamiliar.

Francis began by noting that in today’s Scripture readings “the word of God surprises us with powerful and thought-provoking images.”  First, “Joshua tells Moses that two members of the people are prophesying, speaking God’s word, without a mandate [Numbers 11: 25-29].” And in the gospel, John warns Jesus that someone was casting out demons in his name (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-8). “Here is the surprise: Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow! Would that all could be prophets of God’s word!”

A lot of people were put off by what Jesus said and did, Francis continued. “For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable.” Many of them—including the disciples—acted in good faith, Francis said. “But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.” The Spirit blows where it will. What truly scandalizes, the pope explained, is that which “destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!” (This was an exclamatory homily—nearly half of its fifty sentences ended in exclamation points.)

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Seen, Heard & Not Heard at the World Meeting of Families (UPDATED)

PHILADELPHIA — More than 15,000 people showed up for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend. John Paul II proposed the World Meeting on the Family in 1992, the first was held in 1994, and subsequent meetings have been held every three years since. This year’s was the first to be held in North America.

Although men, women, children, priests, bishops, cardinals, and religious brothers and sisters from all over the world were in attendance, the 15,000 didn’t strike me as representative of the universal church. Conspicuously underrepresented demographics included: the poor, who likely couldn’t afford the time off, the price of tickets, or the cost of travel; the divorced; the infertile; the gay; and women who aren’t mothers, wives, or consecrated virgins. They weren’t just absent physically; their ideas, concerns, and struggles were also missing—or, if present, they were misrepresented through caricature and rhetoric about the truth of the church and the lies of secular society.

I was disappointed, not because I expected otherwise, but because hope is a necessary disposition for those of us who both love and get frustrated with the church—and my hope was misplaced. I hoped for a gesture of relative openness. Call it the Francis effect.

The World Meeting didn’t promise to be a dialogue, though; it promised to be a series of lectures and workshops. The lineup of speakers was probably an effective way to weed out any chance of dissenting attendees, as conservative champions like Christopher West, Robert Barron, Helen Alvaré, Scott Hahn, Greg and Lisa Popcak, and Janet Smith all gave presentations. Perhaps more frustrating than a lineup of expected and theologically aligned speakers was the invitation of non-Catholic (but conservative) leaders like Rick Warren and Elder Christofferson to give their thoughts on the family. It boggles my mind: How did Rick Warren get an invite to a conference covering Catholic views on the family, vocation, sexuality, while someone like Margaret Farley did not? Even if the church doesn’t support her views, she is an intellectually rigorous and ardently Catholic woman committed to deepening and broadening the spectrum of theological thinking in church. She could have been a panel member alongside some conservative counterpart, offering attendees of the conference a fruitful consideration of the effects of particular beliefs or policies.

There is space in the church for dialogue—it is the only church, I think, that is structurally and historically competent to bear diversity. Catholics can trust each other to earnestly desire what is good for the church, for each other, for the common good, and still disagree about how it comes to bear in practice. We don’t abandon the church when things don’t go our way; we dig our feet in a little deeper and, for the sake of the sacraments and the community and the traditions, we fight, learn, compromise, teach, fight some more. Under Pope Francis, conservative clergy in the American church will have to adjust to this just as liberal nuns have had to before. It’s part of being Catholic.

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Meanwhile, Back at the Culture Wars: Douthat on "Franciscan Catholicism"

It should go without saying that a columnist for the New York Times enjoys an extraordinary power. What an opportunity to shape, if not opinions, at least the frame of a discussion! It should also go without saying that people without power often adulate those with it. Ross Douthat has power, and he’s gotten his share of adulation. He’s also gotten attention, including in Commonweal, and has brought Commonweal to the attention of the Times’ multitudinous readers, including in his Sunday column entitled “Springtime for Liberal Christianity.” In this case it probably goes without saying that the magazine’s editors and supporters owe him a measure of thanks.

Perhaps then it is a touch churlish to be frustrated with him. But “Springtime for Liberal Christianity”—the title makes me think of both Mel Brooks and Alexander Dubcek: hard to square—is a frustrating piece of journalism.

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Pope Francis to Abuse Victims: You Are Ministers of Mercy (UPDATED)

(Updates throughout.)

PHILADELPHIA—This morning Pope Francis met with five victims of sexual abuse for about an hour. He was joined by Cardinal Seán O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and chairman of the pope's commission for the protection of minors, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's commission for the protection of minors. 

"Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered," Francis told the victims, three women and two men who were abused by clergy, family members or teachers. "I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted." Francis apologized for "times when you or your family spoke out to report the abuse but you were not heard or believed." He continued: "Please know that the Holy Father hears and believes you." Francis also expressed "regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children," and pledged to hold priests and bishops "accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children."

During his visit to the United States, Pope Francis has made only passing reference to the scandal. During a service with bishops in Washington on Wednesday, he praised "the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.” And on Thursday he said to priests and religious in New York that “you have suffered greatly in the recent past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church.”

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Pope Francis to Bishops: Celebrate the Family, Don't Complain about It

PHILADELPHIA—In a thirty-minute address this morning, Pope Francis told bishops that the family is not primarily a “cause for concern,” but rather “joyous confirmation” of God’s favor. The major pastoral challenge of our “changing times,” Francis continued, “is to move decisively towards recognizing this gift.” Whatever the obstacles facing families, facing the church, an attitude of “gratitude” for families must “prevail over concerns and complaints.” The audience included several dozen U.S. bishops, along with cardinals from around the world. 

Adopting such an attitude does not mean ignoring the “unprecedented” changes unfolding across society, the pope said. And while Christians are not “immune” to such changes, “this concrete world, with all its many problems and possibilities, is where we must live, believe and proclaim.” How has the situation of the church changed? Civil marriage and sacramental marriage are no longer “interrelated and mutually supportive.” Francis compared this change to the replacement of mom-and-pop shops with supermarkets:

There was a time when one neighborhood store had everything one needed for personal and family life. The products may not have been cleverly displayed, or offered much choice, but there was a personal bond between the shopkeeper and his customers.

Not anymore. Now supermarkets have taken over—“huge spaces with a great selection of merchandise.” Culture has become increasingly competitive. This culture, powered by an ethic of consumerism, encourages young people not to form lasting bonds. What matters is no longer the neighbor, but the satisfaction of one’s own needs in the here and now. “We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain ‘consumers,’ while so many others only ‘eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’ (Mt 15:27).” Young people rush to accumulate friends on social networks, which leads to “loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized."

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Thomas who?

When, at age nine, I made plans to become President of the United States, it was not out of any sense of the common good.  It was to repair a hole in the political universe, namely the well-known law that “a Catholic cannot be elected president.”  Ten years later, JFK beat me to it, and I disbanded my team of advisors and fundraisers. 

Kennedy’s breakthrough was not the end of the surprises.  In 1965, a pope actually landed on these shores, quite openly rather than by secret tunnel. In 1979 another pope was actually welcomed in the White House, by a Baptist president no less.  After that pope-president tetes a tetes became routine. 

The idea of a pope addressing a joint meeting of Congress, however, with Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices and military commanders in attendance was something that would have entirely escaped my childhood imagination.  But that was not all.  Speaking in that hallowed chamber, the pope sang the praises of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Truly beyond belief. 

I wonder how many people in that chamber said, “Dorothy Who?”   A great many surely said, “Thomas Who?” If it hadn’t been the pope speaking, they would probably have started googling. 

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Pope Francis on Religious Liberty & Polyhedrons

PHILADELPHIA—When Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor on Wednesday, it was widely viewed as a sign that when it came to their (and their bishops’) opposition to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate the pontiff had their back. Sure, there was no formal address. It didn’t appear on the official schedule. But the message was clear: the pope stands with the Little Sisters. “By embracing this order of nuns,” according to Catholic League President William Donohue, “Pope Francis laid down an unmistakable marker: He rejects efforts by the Obama administration to force Catholic nonprofit organizations to pay for, or even sanction, abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans.”

This afternoon, Francis had an opportunity to make that marker even less mistakable—an address on religious freedom at Independence Hall. But rather than highlight the contraception mandate, or really any specific threat to religious freedom, Francis offered a surprise stem-winder. On the page, the address looked like the opposite of his speeches to the UN and Congress: a cloud of abstractions floating high above the ground. But on several occasions, Francis departed from the prepared text—perhaps for the first time during his time in the United States—veering from philosophical discourses about the importance of historical memory to a riff on the merits of the polyhedron over the sphere as an illustration of the right kind of globalization. Really.

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Yes, Pope Francis Is Developing Doctrine

PHILADELPHIA— Two passages in Pope Francis’s kitchen-sinked address to the UN yesterday stuck out as especially intriguing: his assertion of “a right of the environment” (not a right to the environment) and his renewed call to abolish the death penalty (not to hardly ever use it, as the Catechism has it). In the run-up to Laudato si’, some theologians (or at least one) wondered whether Francis would build on traditional calls for environmental stewardship to argue that nature itself has rights. And anyone with ears to hear has known that the pope has been strenuously pushing the church to reject capital punishment, even going so far as calling life sentences a “hidden death penalty.” In his comments on the “right of the environment” and capital punishment, is the pope, as David Gibson put it, developing doctrine right before our eyes?

At last night’s papal-visit presser, Christopher Lamb of the Tablet (of London) put that question to Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ. His answer? Basically, yes.

Calling “right of the environment” a “new expression,” Lombardi cautioned against interpreting the phrase as a “technical expression.” It’s true: Francis did not say much about what he means by this right, but he did argue that it exists because “we human beings are part of the environment.” Of course, the philosophy of rights is a complicated subject, and it’s not at all clear what it would mean for a non-volitional part of creation, indeed creation itself, to have rights. Perhaps that’s why in the printed version of the address the phrase is tucked between quotation marks. Or not—because he says there is “a true ‘right of the environment.’” Maybe Francis wants theologians (and the rest of us) to take the ball and run with it. Whatever his intent, as Lombardi acknowledged, the phrase is new—and therefore significant.

Also significant was Lombardi’s answer to Lamb’s question about the death penalty. Is Francis developing that teaching? Yes, Lombardi said. And then he reminded the assembled journalists of another of Francis’s concerns: life sentences, which he has likened to “dying every day.” Perhaps, Lombardi suggested, “he will also deepen this expression in the future.” That future may be near. Francis’s second stop during his very full Sunday in Philadelphia? Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Theologians, start your engines.

Pope Francis to Congress: Be Your Best

This morning Pope Francis delivered a stirring address to the U.S. Congress—the first of its kind—in which he carefully, but firmly urged legislators to draw on the rich history of this nation to build up the common good. Largely avoiding the harsh rhetoric he cautioned bishops against yesterday, he prodded America to remember what has made it great: welcoming the stranger, cooperating with those of diverse commitments, working toward the common good. Ensuring the commonweal “is the chief aim of all politics,” according to Francis, who once weighed a career in political life. He acknowledged that defending the dignity of all, working to ensure the well-being of all citizens, especially “the most vulnerable,” is not an easy task. Yet, he continued, that is the responsibility, indeed the vocation, to which every lawmaker is called. This was a speech of fundamental ideas—of political theory, of anthropology, of theology. But it was anything but airy. Francis talked in specifics. He talked immigration, he talked capital punishment, he talked arms control, he talked climate change.

The pope’s audience, however, was not limited to those in the room. He characterized his message as an invitation to enter into a dialogue with all Americans: the elderly who, while retired, “keep working to build up this land”; the young, who strive to “realize their great and noble aspirations” yet face “difficult situations”; and everyday workers, who labor not simply “to pay their taxes,” but “in their own quiet way…generate solidarity.”

Francis used the stories of four great Americans to drive home his message of solidarity with the planet and all its people: Abraham Lincoln, who defended liberty; Martin Luther King (who featured in Francis’s address at the White House), who sought to ensure the “full rights for all [our] brothers and sisters”;  Dorothy Day, who devoted her life toward “the cause of the oppressed”; and Thomas Merton, who serves as an example of our “capacity for dialogue and the United States.”

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Papal Coverage: The Lectionary Beat

Everyone's got a hot take on the Pope this week. The Washington Post's George Will went full Thomas Nast in fearful preparation for Francis's arrival. ("Francis's seeming sympathy for medieval stasis...against modernity, rationality, science.") All he needed was a cartoon with mitres shaped like alligator heads attacking financiers on Wall Street. 

By contrast, the New York Times's David Gelles offered a playful, well-reported piece on the front page of the business section (!) about the sharkskin-suit-wearing concert producer behind the scenes of the big show. ("The bishops," the producer said, "aren't showbiz guys.")

What's a scholar to do? What's my take? 

I scooped them all.

In an article for Yahoo's page about the papal visit, I explain the "breaking news" about the Pope's concluding Mass in Philadelphia. 

Detailed study of an advance, partial script of the worship service shows that the theme of income inequality will be dramatically emphasized.

With rhetorical flourish and prophetic fervor, the Mass will call for the “rich” to “weep and wail” over “impending miseries.” More specifically, the issue of wages will be explicitly addressed: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers” are “crying aloud.” The plight of migrant “harvesters,” undercompensated by absentee landlords, will feature as an example.

Did I use my Jesuit connections to secure an advance copy of the Pope's remarks?  I wish. No collar, no embargoed remarks. 

Instead, I checked the lectionary. It turns out that some of the strongest language in the Bible against income inequality (James 5:1-6) happens to appear in this Sunday's Mass. Pope Francis's emphasis on systematic exploitation of workers and migrants is, as Bible-readers know, deeply biblical. On Sunday this theme will be on display for all, and I imagine Pope Francis will take the opportunity to preach on it. 

It remains to be seen whether and how he incorporates this reading with the Gospel for the day. But thanks to the lectionary, millions of people will at least hear how central to the scriptures is the cry of the poor. 

(You can read the rest right here.)

Peter Steinfels on Politicizing Pope Francis

Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.

Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.

Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where

the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.

And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has

acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.

So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.

On Fact-Free Flamboyance: George Will vs. Pope Francis

George Will really needs to look in a mirror. In a screed worthy of Fox News, he denigrates Pope Francis for proposing policy prescriptions that would “devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak”. Yet while Will accuses the pope of being “fact free”, Will is the one who gets his facts wrong. Will is the one who seems completely out of touch with recent trends in the global economy.

For a piece centered on Pope Francis’s policy prescriptions, Will really doesn’t discuss them. So let me help him out. If we want to lay out the broad economic prescriptions associated with Pope Francis, we might point to: a fairer distribution of the earth’s resources and the fruits of human labor, the inclusion of everyone in development, the prioritization of employment, investment in sustainability and ceasing to harm the planet, and a financial sector that serves rather than rules the real economy.

It might surprise Will to learn that these prescriptions are not exactly controversial, and actually improve human welfare and the resilience of the global economy. They do good, not harm—especially for the poor and the excluded. In each of these cases, the moral choice is also the economically viable choice. Let’s explore this.

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Pope Francis & America

Pope Francis’s much-heralded first trip to the United States begins Tuesday, after what some consider a mischievous stop in the Castros’ Cuba. Francis’s distrust of U.S. economic and military hegemony is no secret. His condemnation of the first-world’s “throwaway” consumer culture has plenty of biblical warrant, but may not register with most American Catholics, who are doing quite well, thank you. Nevertheless, it is likely that Francis’s remarkable warmth and candor will succeed in charming his hosts, just as it has won the affection of just about everyone except bureaucrats in the Vatican and an outspoken group of self-styled “orthodox” Catholics who fear this pope is trying to impose a radical agenda on the church.

Francis will be stopping in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. In Washington he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who founded many of California’s missions in the eighteenth century. Like most of the things this Argentinian Jesuit does, Serra’s canonization is controversial. Native American groups accuse the missionary of complicity in the genocide of California Indians. As Gregory Orfalea wrote recently in Commonweal, while denouncing the crimes of colonialism, Francis believes the historical record shows that Serra was a defender, not a persecutor, of the native population. He also wants to direct the church’s attention away from Rome to the “peripheries,” and making his first canonization that of a Hispanic from the American West fits the bill. At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, the pope will then speak to a joint session of Congress. No canonizations are expected to be made there now or in the near future.  

In New York, Francis will address the UN, which is standard fare for popes. No doubt he will call for sheltering refugees and greater peacekeeping efforts from the international community. Much to the annoyance of some, the church has long been an advocate of international institutions. He will also decry climate change and the globalized economy’s impact on the poor, as he did in his recent environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. There will be a visit with the homeless and a Mass at Madison Square Garden. After that it is on to Philadelphia to help close the World Meeting on the Family, a kind of very chaste, very buttoned-upped Catholic Woodstock. Given the conservative bent of the American hierarchy, the meeting’s presentations and workshops are heavily stacked with advocates for the church’s prohibitions against contraception, abortion, civil divorce and remarriage, and same-sex marriage. The meeting’s agenda is no surprise. Philadelphia’s archbishop, Charles Chaput, is among the most dedicated culture warriors. He has confessed perplexity over Francis’s initiatives when it comes to marriage and the family.   

If Francis remains true to form when it comes to Catholicism’s moral teachings, he will make a point of softening the tone with which the church interacts with the larger secular culture and with disaffected Catholics.

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The Pope Is Coming!

Have you heard? This has made George Will go the full ad hominem:

Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.

He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

It's made Will's employer repeat the thinly sourced claim that the Obama administration somehow insulted the Holy See by daring to invite a diverse crowd to the pope's reception at the White House. (David Gibson's sources say that's simply not the case.)

It's made that same paper publish R. R. Reno's purported review of Paul Vallely's updated biography of Francis, which is really a review of the pope, in which the editor of First Things floats the idea that "it's best to think of the Catholic Church as enduring pope Francis," whose "verbal extremism" he finds rather "exhausting."

It's made Anne Barrett Doyle suggest that the Vatican approves of bishops going easy on priests who are credibly accused of child abuse. (Seems rather dubious.)

It's made a U.S. Representative, a Catholic even, decide to boycott Francis's address to Congress, convinced that the pope will not address his preferred concerns. (I don't know anyone who has seen a copy of that text.)

But it's also brought smart commentary from, for example, my friend Bene Cipolla, who writes in today's New York Times about her father, a married Catholic priest.

And of course the pope isn't even here yet. He's in Cuba. Which you can read all about here and here and here (our curtain-raiser, by Tom Quigley). Washington is waiting. New York is Waiting. Philly is waiting. I recommend resting up. Could be exhausting.


Triage in the Field Hospital

Saturday's Commonweal event on marriage and the family was thoroughly informative (watch it here). Lots of good thoughts, so much common sense, but what stuck with me the most was David Gibson's question, given that the papal visit to the U.S. was already on the schedule before the election of Pope Francis, would he otherwise have made a trip over here a priority? Interesting to speculate, no way to be sure.

Two interrelated questions have been bugging me since the panel ended. First: if Robert Putnam's analysis in his latest book, Our Kids, so ably channeled by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, is correct, then the troubles with the family in American life are merely epiphenomenal, and to get at the roots of the marital crisis we have to solve the problem of inadequate income among those with less education. It's not a new idea to say that we would have much more social stability if we had an economy supplying jobs that paid a living wage at every level of our social hierarchy. But perhaps it puts questions about communion for the divorced and remarried into perspective. This is a serious issue and it ought to be solved employing the preferred papal virtue of mercy, but it won't do anything for the underlying social issues. And much the same can be said for loosening up the other issues around divorce and annulment and remarriage. Putnam shows pretty clearly that the plight of the poor has more to do with the absence of marriage or laxity about marital commitments than it does with agonizing over remarriage. If the church is truly a field hospital, as Pope Francis has suggested, then it has to practice triage, like any other field hospital. In other words, where are the really critical issues that require the most urgent attention?

My second question is about how the Synod on the Family is going down in the global south. We all know about conservative African bishops who think homosexuality is criminal and who take a dim view of how the church in the north approaches issues of sexuality and marriage. But isn't there just a bit of a danger that we in North America don't see that the priorities we would like to see addressed might come across in less affluent parts of the church as the whining of spoiled brats? If the synod can find its way to more compassionate approaches to divorce and remarriage or can loosen up its rules on receiving communion, how much does this mean for the large parts of the church where marriage is mostly common law marriage or where communion for anyone at all is a rare treat from the occasional visiting priest?

So I wonder if this Synod on the Family isn't in the papal mind an effort to clear away some of the less important issues that are causing unnecessary pain, so that the real issues of global poverty and the many ills that follow can become the real agenda for a church of missionary disciples.

Annulments & Assessments

Much papal news in and outside of the mainstream media today, much stemming from Francis’s announcement on annulments, more assessing his strategies and successes on curial reform, and some on his call over the weekend for Catholics in Europe to extend the welcome to migrants and refugees.

On annulments: Emma Green at The Atlantic says the new policy is the first tremor signaling the big shakeups to come, while David Gibson, writing at NCR, takes a closer look at the streamlining of procedures and questions what effect the changes will have in the United States, “where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.” And at Crux, Inés San Martín goes a little bit deeper into the details. Now might also be a good time to view (or review) our Commonweal Reading List on the state of Catholic marriage, updated to reflect new developments.

At The New Yorker, Alexander Stille assesses Francis’s chances of making changes to the Curia, given how for “the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited.” “I got a glimpse of how difficult that might be,” Stilles writes

when I attended a gathering of high-level Vatican officials in Rome earlier this year and overheard a cardinal talking about how L’Espresso, an Italian news magazine, would soon be publishing a damaging exposé of the free-spending ways of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian whom Francis brought in to clean up the Vatican’s finances. The article was based on leaked documents, and the cardinal was clearly pleased with its imminent publication. “When Francis came in, the attitude was that everything that the Italians did was bad and corrupt—now it is a little more complicated,” he said. He felt that it was important to settle accounts with those he viewed as “pseudo-reformers.”

Paul Vallely, at New York Magazine, writes on what he sees as the pope’s “wily political strategy,” one built on alliance-building, openness to confrontation, and planning: “The pope’s friends describe him as a ‘chess player’ whose ‘every step has been thought out.’”

The Washington Post reports that Hungary’s Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo is not on board with Francis’s call this weekend for Europe’s Catholics to open their churches, monasteries, and homes as sanctuaries for those seeking refuge. “They’re not refugees,” Rigo said, quoted in the Post. “This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.” The Vatican itself is taking in two refugee families, now giving it the ability, according to The Guardian, to respond to Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League, “who in a radio interview once sarcastically asked how many migrants were living in Vatican City.”

The America Francis Will Visit

My wife and I don't watch much TV—I marvel that people have the time!—but we plunked down on Friday, after a long back-to-school week, to watch 20/20's "Pope Francis and the People." And we've been thinking and talking about it since.

The show's opening is a bit hokey—reality TV comes to the Vatican—but then you meet, well, real people: two students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago; a young man who lived some of his teen years homeless in Los Angeles; a single mother and her two young daughters who likewise lived in shelters in Los Angeles; a "dreamer" in Texas whose college scholarship was withdrawn when the school learned of his immigration status; a young girl who recently escaped from El Salvador with her mother; a religious sister first seen embracing the girl's mother as the girl tells Francis her harrowing story. Nearly all these persons cried when speaking with the pope, but there was nothing at all contrived about the emotion they expressed. Instead, it was deeply moving.

It hardly needs stating: this is not Donald Trump's America. Not one of the persons who speak with the pope is white or well-to-do, and Spanish is more often the language at home. We meet Americans suffering from autoimmune disease and bullying, poverty, indifference, homelessness, gang violence financed by our drug addictions, and hardhearted, grandstanding politics. These same Americans are also, however, profiles in courage and hope, supported by institutions, like Cristo Rey, and persons, like Sister Norma, worthy of national pride. But what will happen, for example, to the girl and her mother from El Salvador? Will the young "dreamer" be granted citizenship and be able to enroll in college? Will the young man in Los Angeles find a way through life?

I'd be interested to know how these persons were chosen to meet the pope. What hand did the Vatican have? Did 20/20, having done its research about the pope, propose these profiles, or did Francis specify the America he wanted presented to us? In any event, it was persons on the margins who, for an hour, came front and center. Here's hoping this is a preview of what Francis will show us when he visits. And I'm also hoping Francis will be so bold to address Congress in Spanish. That would, again, be TV worth watching....