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The Papal Visit Beyond Issues

As the visit of Pope Francis approaches, many groups are weighing in on what they hope he talks about. Certainly there are many pressing and deadlocked issues on which the pope’s voice might be seen as one above the political fray (although insofar as groups in the political fray try to use his message, that effect is diminished). Issues such as immigration, the environment, economic inequality, and capital punishment are ones where Francis has been outspoken, and all of these are quite alive in the political discourse (if not in really realistic and ambitious policy).

Count me leaning pessimistic. Here’s how I see the problem. Let’s imagine asking a question: on a scale of 1 to 10, how close is current American culture to the overall Catholic vision of the person in society? 1 is completely at odds, 10 is completely in sync. I know the conventional response here: American culture is all over the map, some aspects are close, some are not. Some seem to be moving one way, some another. How can we answer the question “overall”?

The effect of ignoring the “overall” question is to make Catholic social teaching sound like it is simply a set of issue statements. What is the Catholic position on X or Y? Two problems then arise. First, it becomes difficult to make the appropriate distinctions between principles and particular policies. This is true whether an issue is “liberal” or “conservative”—it’s a problem whether we are talking about immigration or same-sex marriage. Second, it becomes difficult to give an account why, by and large, neither of the two parties seem to embrace all the “issue principles” as a group. Parties simply are the vehicles we have in the U.S. by which voters speak and by which candidates rise in the ranks and get nominated. Put in somewhat bleak terms, the difficulty of getting straight on how the principles come together in a larger vision means that the deployment of Catholicism starts looking like a strategy of convenience and simple political manipulation—and again, this can be done from both sides of the partisan divide. And generally speaking, regardless of the side, I don’t think Catholic social teaching gains in credibility if it looks like it simply appears when convenient on a particular issue.

Thus, the “overall” question is really an attempt to get us to dig a bit deeper to get past many years (decades?) of Catholic teaching simply being deployed for partisan purposes. What’s the deeper vision and to what extent are the seeds of such a vision growing or withering in American culture? That question has two poles. The easier pole is saying something about the deeper vision. Whether it’s Benedict or Francis, I think it is pretty easy to say Catholic social thought sees the person as oriented to transcendence (“vertically”) and communitarian (“horizontally”). I mean, that’s just the unity of love of God and neighbor, and the two “parts” are really inseparably intertwined. My interpretation of Catholic social thought would argue for a pretty wide latitude in fleshing out the meanings of “spiritual” and “communitarian” commitments in a pluralistic society, but it would be a problem if (a) these seemed to be eroding, and/or (b) very corrupt versions of them were appearing. (So, for example, nativism or fascism looks communitarian in some ways, but would in fact be a false vision of it.)

What can be said about the “American culture” pole in relation to this vision? This is much harder—after all, any generalizations about “American culture” can almost always be contested, because there are many, diverse “cultures.” But it’s hard for me to deny that the general drift on these is poor. Religious commitment is down overall, with a particularly sharp generational skew, and it is hard to point to either studies or political phenomena that indicate a resurgence of “community.” For evidence of decline appearing in so many places, see here and here. By contrast, the libertarian elements of each party seem more likely to advance.

Now, this last paragraph of generalization is (as I said) super-contestable, and since I am at heart an optimist (the Cubs are going to the playoffs this year), I’d love to be convinced that the vision or spirit is a movin’ better than I am seeing. It would be nice to see Francis, rather than just go after issues, come to speak with America about losing a sense of the spiritual and falling prey to individualism, and call for some conversion on these fronts. This diagnosis and call for conversion is, after all, pervasive in Laudato Si’ as the pope’s diagnosis of the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. Moreover, these themes do speak to the other issues mentioned above (immigration, etc.), and would perhaps allow Catholics to speak about them in a way that appeared more “religious” and less “partisan.” A model example: Archbishop Cupich’s response to the Planned Parenthood videos. He hit all the issues. But he diagnosed the deeper problems, too. I am sure Francis will do that, too. I just hope it gets reported.

And I hope he does not inadvertently bless the New York Mets as he travels through town…

Francis: Doctrine Can't Be Separated from Pastoral Context

Riveting headline, I know. And yet, four weeks away from the start of the Synod on the Family (now expanded to three weeks instead of last year's two—more time for Synod truthers to spin elaborate conspiracy theories about the proceedings), the remarks Pope Francis delivered to the International Theological Congress on Thursday appear to set the table for the debate. I could summarize, but you're better off just reading what the pope said. (I can't find the text online, so I'm going drop in long excerpts from the Vatican Information Service bulletin.)

First, on the question of the local church's relationship with the universal (the issue behind the ridicuous attempt to smear Cardinal Walter Kasper as some kind of crypto-racist), the pope said:

There exists no isolated particular church that can be said to be the owner and sole interpreter of the reality and the work of the Spirit. No community has a monopoly over interpretation or inculturation just as, on the other hand, there is no universal Church that turns away from, ignores or neglects the local situation.
And this leads us to assume that it is not the same to be a Christian…in India, in Canada, or in Rome. Therefore, one of the main tasks of the theologian is to discern and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian today, in the "here and now." How does that original source manage to irrigate these lands today, and to make itself visible and liveable?… To meet this challenge, we must overcome two possible temptations: first, condemning everything: …assuming "everything was better in the past," seeking refuge in conservatism or fundamentalism, or conversely, consecrating everything, disavowing everything that does not have a "new flavor," relativising all the wisdom accumulated in our rich ecclesial heritage. The path to overcoming these temptations lies in reflection, discernment, and taking both the ecclesiastical tradition and current reality very seriously, placing them in dialogue with one another.

Next, Francis discussed the relationship between doctrine and pastoral practice (another major question to be taken up by the Synod fathers):

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Data Day

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s already a big Catholic news week. Pew Research released a new poll setting the table for the pope’s spin through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia later this month. Francis announced that for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which will begin in December, he will allow all priests to absolve those who confess procuring abortions—and that priests of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X can hear confessions too. And today word came that Francis met with a liberal French bishop who had been exiled by John Paul II. Let’s start with the sexiest item: data (I’ll get to the other stuff later).

You’ve probably already seen the headlines: “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families” (at least that’s how Pew itself titled the report). Shock. Awe. Fainting couch. But look deeper into the study, and several interesting findings emerge. First, in addition to the fact that most American Catholics don’t agree with Catholic teaching on a range of issues, Pew Research asked a series of questions that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever asked before: How connected to Catholicism are you? Turns out that 45 percent of all Americans either identify as Catholic or are connected to Catholicism—20 percent say they’re Catholic. Is the 20 percent figure news? Not really. But first, let’s have a look at those values findings.

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Educational Video on Laudato si'

As we enter September through the freshly-instituted World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, we might expect Laudato si’ to get a second wind. This is especially true as we edge closer to the unprecedented gathering of world leaders at the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals later this month—a gathering that will be addressed by Pope Francis.

In light of this, there will obviously be a lot of initiatives surrounding Laudato si’ and the broader call to care for our common home. And this is good. Here, I will be a little self-serving and flag one in which I am involved: a short educational video, or “mini-MOOC” that explores the main themes of the encyclical. You can access it and enroll here. It's pretty straightforward.

This video is the result of a partnership between the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Religions for Peace, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/ Social Sciences. It was filmed in the Vatican in July—in the gorgeous Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And it is hosted on SDSNedu, the educational platform of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Speakers include Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute; Columbia University; William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace;…and me! Yes, I am clearly the odd one out among this illustrious group, but please don’t hold that against the MOOC!

Feedback welcome...

Poll: Pope Francis and Former Catholics

A new poll released in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States offers data that suggest the pontiff will have the ear of many Catholics who have left the church or otherwise become discouraged with its leadership.  

The poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service presents an interesting profile of those who identify as former Catholics, a group that it says comprises 15 percent of the U.S. population. It finds a gender gap, for example: former Catholics tend to be male (55 percent) while current Catholics are more likely female (56 percent). The former Catholics are more likely to identify as liberal (37 percent) than current Catholics (27 percent) or as political independents (50 percent, former Catholics; 36 percent, current Catholics).

Former Catholics are reported to have a much more positive view of Pope Francis (64 percent approve) than of the church (43 percent). Similar gaps can be found among young people and liberals.

Catholics are much more likely to say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics (80 percent) than to say the U.S. Catholic bishops do (60 percent).

While some conservative Catholics have objected to Francis's priorities,  the poll suggests that overall, American Catholics have a more favorable feeling toward their church than they did before Francis became pope. (56 percent said their feelings had changed, and of those 3 out of 5 said their feelings toward the church had become more favorable.)


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Can Hope Combat Despair (and Denial) on Climate Change?

With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.

“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.

For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.

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Popes in the City

Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)   

Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter. 

Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:


In Pope Francis's carefully constructed encyclical, Laudato si', chapter three is entitled "The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis." In it the pope seeks to go beyond the symptoms of the crisis, graphically depicted in chapter one, to its deeper causes. Foremost among these he singles out the dominance of the "technological paradigm" that shapes and distorts actions and perceptions. "This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. ..... It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation." (#106)
Francis counters this "anthropology" of the detached and dominating subject, with a vision of the radical interconnectedness of reality, especially human reality. And he is not reluctant to draw out the implications of that vision. "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?" (#120)
He goes on to lament the tendency "to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development." (#136)
In today's Washington Post Michael Gerson comments on the "sting video" that caught the medical director of Planned Parenthood speaking about the extraction of body parts from aborted fetuses. She says:
We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part. I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact. And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex. . . . So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last step, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.”
"Control over an external object," "something formless, completely open to manipulation." Calvarium indeed.

Prophecy and Prose

Pope Francis’ recent speech in Bolivia has rekindled the debate over Pope Francis’ views on economics and inequality.  Francis’ defenders have argued that the pope is merely offering a robust presentation of Catholic social teaching.  His more fevered critics see him as a herald of a resurgent Marxism.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that it usually operates at a level of abstraction, as if the choices facing policymakers really did boil down to a choice between capitalism and, well, something else.  To a great extent, this reflects the penchant of American conservatives branding even modest efforts to redress economic inequality as “socialism.”

As fond as I am of Francis, however, I think the pope also bears some responsibility for this.  Phrases like an “economy that kills” and “an economy of exclusion” remind me of John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “culture of relativism.”  In none of these cases do I find the phrases adequately descriptive of the phenomenon in question or analytically helpful in developing remedies.

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The Future of Catholicism in the U.S.

This week the folks over at Patheos are hosting a "summer symposium" on the Future of Catholicism in the United States.  A few are past and present Comonweal contributors including Eve Tushnet, Michael Novak (okay, admittedly that was a while ago) and this rather obscure fellow from Northern California.  Somthing to tide you over until the next issue of Commonweal, perhaps?

Fighting a Firing in Philadelphia

The first tuition payment for the 2015-2016 school year at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia is due Wednesday. How many families will choose to meet this deadline, however, is unclear. A number in this tight-knit community of parents plan to withhold payment to protest the recent firing of long-time religious education director Margie Winters.

Winters’s dismissal shares some similarities with the firings of staff and teachers from Catholic schools around the country in recent years: personal details (in this case, a same-sex marriage) come to light; a disapproving parent lodges a complaint; a beloved figure is relieved of duties; students and parents rally in support. While such movements may lose steam in the face of long odds against reinstatement, the parent community of Waldron thinks it can keep the pressure up through the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia so that it will still be an issue when Pope Francis visits in September. And an open letter to Francis from Winters’s wife, Andrea Vettori, that is now being shared across social media and news outlets is providing further energy. “Waldron is a community that acts when there is a crisis,” said Diana Moro, who is in charge of the Facebook page StandWithMargie, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes in just over a week.

How realistic are their hopes?

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Capitalists to Pope Francis: What about us?

Pope Francis's in-flight press conferences--freewheeling, unscripted, even unredacted (at least for the moment)--have produced quite a bit of news. Who could forget "Who am I to judge?" Or the time the pope said that a friend who talks smack about his mom "is going to get a punch in the nose"? Reporters know that asking Francis the right question in just the right way might elicit a headline-worthy response. No surprise, then, that on the flight back to Rome following the pope's visit to South America, where he took globalization to the woodshed, a couple of enterprising reporters wanted to talk economics. Roll tape.

Noting how often Francis had spoken of the poor over the past several days, one German journalist wanted to know why the pope didn't say more about "the middle class, that is, the working people, the people who pay taxes, normal people, like the Greeks." All right, he didn't actually mention the Greeks. He did, however, want to know the pope's message for those non-abnormal, responsible payers of taxes.

Instead of asking the reporter whether he realized that Bolivia--where he delivered his stinging rebuke to purveyors of globalization--is the poorest country in South America, that 60 percent of its 8 million residents live below the poverty line, a quarter of them in extreme poverty, Francis responded graciously: "Thank you very much, that is a nice correction. You are right, that is a mistake on my part. I have to think about that." The Catholic News Agency made it sound like Francis had never considered this before: "You're right, I'll have to come up with something!" But Francis didn't quite say that, and he wasn't done answering the question.

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Con Man

In his scripted remarks to thousands of young people gathered at the Costantera Riverside Park in Paraguay (including a large contingent from Argentina), Pope Francis spun a contemporary riff on the classic Ignatian image of the "two Standards" from the Spiritual Exercises.

He transposed it imaginatively to two adamantly opposed soccer squads, decked out in flouncy jersies that trumpet their personal loyalty and adherence. Friendship is the bond uniting and inspiring both teams; but their leaders are toto caelo different.

For the captain of the one squad is the devil, the enemy of humanity. In an astute personal depiction Francis labels him a "con man." He paints a vivid portrait:

Friends: the devil is a con artist.  He makes promises after promise, but he never delivers.  He’ll never really do anything he says.  He doesn’t make good on his promises.  He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not.  He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy.  That’s his game, his strategy.  He talks a lot, he offers a lot, but he doesn’t deliver.  He is a con artist because everything he promises us is divisive, it is about comparing ourselve to others, about stepping over them in order to get what we want.  He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone.  Everything is based on appearances.  He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess.

The Captain of the other team is Jesus whose aproach is totally different.

Then we have Jesus, who asks us to play on his team.  He doesn’t con us, nor does he promise us the world.  He doesn’t tell us that we will find happiness in wealth, power and pride.  Just the opposite.  He shows us a different way.  This coach tells his players: “Blessed, happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.  And he ends up by telling them: “Rejoice on account of all this!”.

Why?  Because Jesus doesn’t lie to us.  He shows us a path which is life and truth.  He is the great proof of this.  His style, his way of living, is friendship, relationship with his Father.  And that is what he offers us.  He makes us realize that we are sons and daughters.  Beloved children.

And that's no con job.

Papal Allergies

In his prepared remarks to Representatives of Paraguay's Civil Society yesterday, Pope Francis said:

A fundamental part of helping the poor involves the way we see them.  An ideological approach is useless: it ends up using the poor in the service of other political or personal interests (Evangelii Gaudium, 199).  To really help them, the first thing is for us to be truly concerned for their persons, valuing them for their goodness.  Valuing them, however, also means being ready to learn from them.  The poor have much to teach us about humanity, goodness and sacrifice.  As Christians, we have an additional reason to love and serve the poor; for in them we see the face and the flesh of Christ, who made himself poor so to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).

But, as always with Francis, his off the cuff additions provide both insight and bemusement. Inés San Martín of Crux fills in the picture:

“Ideologies end badly, they do not work because they have a relationship that is either incomplete, or sick or wrong with the people,” Francis said. “Look at the last century, what ideologies ended in: Dictatorships, always.”

Francis then said that ideologies think of the people, but don’t let the people think, everything for the people but nothing with the people.

And this intriguing glimpse behind the smiling face:

He then “admitted” that he gets allergies, “a running nose,” when people such as politicians give grandiose speeches but “when I meet these people, I can’t help thinking ‘what a big liar you are'."

Havana and Washington -- please keep the Kleenex ready!

Pope Francis delivers 'little encyclical' in Bolivia.

Pope Francis's address to the World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Bolivia on Thursday was described as a "little encyclical" by the editor of L'Osservatore Romano. Given its breadth and rhetorical power, that seems about right. Initial reports emphasized the pope's apology for the church's "many grave sins...committed against the native peoples of America," and of course that would receive some attention, given that it plays into the idea of the Catholic Church as unyielding. But the remark came late in the speech, following a withering critique of a globalized economy that operates on the "mentality of profit at any price" without concern for "social exclusion or the destruction of nature."

Do we realize, Francis asked, "that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?" He referred to these "three Ls"--land, lodging and labor--as "sacred rights." And, lest anyone wonder whether the Argentine pope was laboring under a benighted idea of capitalism, Francis made it clear that he was not just talking about the economies of Bolivia and its neighbors. No, "I am speaking about problems common to all Latin Americans and, more generally, to humanity as a whole." This system is "intolerable," he continued, echoing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si': "Farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable… The earth itself--our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say--also finds it intolerable."

Time is short, the pope declared. The planet and its people are suffering; we need change now. "Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea--one of the first theologians of the church--called 'the dung of the devil.' An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the 'dung of the devil.'" Pace David Brooks, Francis failed to mention the free market's wonderful ability to "harness self-interest" and put it to good, that is to say profitable, use. No, he has witnessed the system's failures firsthand, in the slums of Buenos Aires, in his travels as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, "I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world."

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Rekindling the Wonder

Having been "on the road," I returned surprised to find scant (any?) reference on dotCommonweal to Pope Francis's monumental pilgrimage to Ecuador, Bolivia, and, as of yesterday, Paraguay. Perhaps the very monumentality of his undertaking and the substantive nature of his homilies and talks is itself daunting. In any event, they appear to me to be authoritative commentary on the encyclical, "Laudato si."

So, as a beginning, one might consider the talk Francis gave to the priests, religious, and seminarians in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Thursday. Commenting on the Gospel account of Bartimaeus and the varied reactions of the bystanders and passers by, the Holy Father challenged them/himself/us:

How many of us followers of Christ run the risk of losing our ability to be astonished, even with the Lord? That wonder we had on the first encounter seems to diminish, and it can happen to anyone. Indeed it happened to the first Pope: “Whom shall we go to Lord? You have the words of eternal life”. And then they betray him, they deny him, the wonder fades away. It happens when we get accustomed to things. The heart is blinded. A heart used to passing by without letting itself be touched; a life which passes from one thing to the next, without ever sinking roots in the lives of the people around us, simply because it is part of the elite who follow the Lord.

And he concluded:

There can be no compassion – and I mean compassion and not pity – without stopping. If you do not stop, you do not suffer with him, you do not have divine compassion. There is no “com-passion” that does not listen and show solidarity with the other. Compassion is not about zapping, it is not about silencing pain, it is about the logic of love, of suffering with. A logic, a way of thinking and feeling, which is not grounded in fear but in the freedom born of love and of desire to put the good of others before all else. A logic born of not being afraid to draw near to the pain of our people. Even if often this means no more than standing at their side and praying with them.

This is the logic of discipleship, it is what the Holy Spirit does with us and in us. We are witnesses of this. One day Jesus saw us on the side of the road, wallowing in our own pain and misery, our indifference. Each one knows his or her past. He did not close his ear to our cries. He stopped, drew near and asked what he could do for us. And thanks to many witnesses, who told us, “Take heart; get up”, gradually we experienced this merciful love, this transforming love, which enabled us to see the light. We are witnesses not of an ideology, of a recipe, of a particular theology. We are not witnesses of that. We are witnesses to the healing and merciful love of Jesus. We are witnesses of his working in the lives of our communities.

And with that witness, wonder is rekindled.

Pope Francis's U.S. itinerary.

As you may have heard, the bishop of Rome will be vacationing in the United States in a few months. This morning, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finally released his itinerary. Should you want to go full groupie, here are the relevant details:


9:15  a.m.  Meeting with President Obama at the White House
11:30 a.m. Midday Prayer with the bishops of the United States, St. Matthew's Cathedral
4:15  p.m.  Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra, Basilicia of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception



9:20  a.m.  Address to Joint Session of the United States Congress
11:15 a.m. Visit to St. Patrick in the City and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington
4:00 p.m.   Depart from Joint Base Andrews
5:00 p.m.   Arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport
6:45 p.m.   Evening Prayer (Vespers) at St. Patrick's Cathedral



8:30  a.m. Visit to the United Nations and Address to the United Nations General Assembly
11:30 a.m. Multi-religious service at 9/11 Memorial and Museum, World Trade Center
4:00  p.m.  Visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, East Harlem
6:00  p.m.  Mass at Madison Square Garden



8:40  a.m.  Departure from John F. Kennedy International Airport
9:30  a.m.  Arrival at Atlantic Aviation, Philadelphia
10:30 a.m. Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia
4:45  p.m.  Visit to Independence Mall
7:30  p.m.  Visit to the Festival of Families Benjamin Franklin Parkway



9:15   a.m.  Meeting with bishops at at St. Martin's Chapel, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary
11:00  a.m. Visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility
4:00  p.m.   Mass for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families, Benjamin Franklin Parkway
7:00   p.m.  Visit with organizers, volunteers and benefactors of the World Meeting of Families, Atlantic Aviation
8:00   p.m.  Departure for Rome

Response to David Brooks

Last February, American climate change deniers used the bitterly-cold temperatures to make a political point. Senator James Inhofe famously tossed a snowball across the Senate chamber. But here’s the problem: February 2015 was actually the second warmest on record. If you look at the maps, you will see a world of red with a big blue patch across the eastern half of North America. In other words, the abnormal cold was a purely local phenomenon, and looking at it in isolation would present a highly misleading picture.

Yet this is akin to what David Brooks does in his recent column criticizing Pope Francis and his encyclical. He misses the point that the entire global economy is interconnected, even though Pope Francis repeats his “everything is connected” mantra over and over. One of Brooks’ main points is that richer countries have healthier environments and should get credit for it. But he ignores that fact that the direct counterpart of this is often environmental degradation in poorer countries. Pope Francis is pretty blunt when he talks about the damage done by multinationals seeking short-term financial return. Quoting the Argentinean bishops, he notes that they leave behind “great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers..”

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'Peripheral' Sources for 'Laudato Si’ '

Pope Francis’s new environmental encyclical cites the usual sources. In addition to Scripture, we find the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals and addresses of his papal predecessors, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, his own Evangelii Gaudium, and others.

Most surprising, however, is Francis’s turn to the documents of national and regional bishops’ conferences.  He cites one USCCB document (no. 52), one from the Canadians (no. 85), two from the Germans (nos. 48 and 69), and one from the Portuguese (no. 159). I counted twenty-one references to environmental documents from episcopal conferences.  Only the five mentioned above represent North America and Europe. The remaining sixteen refer to documents from bishops’ conferences in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.  Twice he cites the Latin American Bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document, on which he worked (nos. 38 and 54).

These references are doubly striking.  First, Pope Francis is the self-proclaimed “man from the end of the world,” who appoints new cardinals from places many Americans have never heard of.  As the pope of the periphery, Francis does not treat such questions as the environment and the family exclusively, or even primarily, in terms of perspectives dominant in Washington, Bonn, London, or even Rome. He wants to hear the voices of the churches from the Global South. Americans are going to have to get used to the fact that they make up only about 4% of the world’s Catholics. As this encyclical makes clear, Pope Francis does not map easily on to the landscape of cultural and political strife in the United States. His upcoming visits to Washington and Philadelphia will, I suspect, make this even clearer.

Second, these twenty-one references to teaching documents of episcopal conferences signal Francis’s own vision that the church of which he is chief pastor and teacher is a collegial body.

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