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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....

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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