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'Laudato Si' ': Response Roundup

Here’s a mid-day roundup of response to Laudato Si’ from around the web (if you've already made sure to read Anthony Annett, David Cloutier, Michael Peppard, and Massimo Faggioli on Commonweal). Start with E. J. Dionne Jr., who, in a column posted to our website, says anyone who claims Francis is inventing radical new doctrines

will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. Laudato Si’ is thus thoroughly consistent with over a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition -- going back to St. Francis himself.

Similarly, Emma Green in The Atlantic:

Historical references  …  are peppered throughout the document, and they serve as an important reminder to an often-giddy media that loves to write about today’s revolutionary pope: In the Church, precedent is everything. Francis’s argument is deeply grounded in Catholic teachings dating back to the late-19th-century writings of Pope Leo XIII (and before that, Jesus). … This is far from the Church’s first foray into environmentalism. “I always remind my environmental friends that St. Francis was ours before he was theirs,” said John Carr, a professor at Georgetown and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This didn’t begin with Earth Day or Al Gore. It began with Genesis.”

R. R. Reno at First Things:

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era. … Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy. The only answer is repentance, “deep change,” and a “bold cultural revolution.” If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity.

But Josiah Neely, also at First Things, calls Laudato Si' “a more measured affair” that deserves fuller reading: “[T]here seems to be a fairly large disconnect between the criticism of (much of it made prior to the release of the actual text) and the encyclical itself.”

Francis X. Rocca in the Wall St. Journal zeroes in on “passionate language likely to prove highly divisive” and characterizes Laudato Si’ as abroad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy.” 

What, George Weigel asks, does Francis write in the encyclical?

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Pope Francis's Earthquake

Laudato Si' offers two long-lasting gifts to the church. Through the body of the text, Francis first exhorts us to examine and renew our commitments to God, one another, and "our common home" on earth through an "integral ecology." But the footnotes of the text tell another story, related but distinct from the first. Francis has shown how the Pope can honor and foster collegiality and synodality among the world's Christian leaders.

Those aren't household words, but the concepts are simple enough. Collegiality refers to "the Pope governing the Church in collaboration with the bishops of the local Churches, respecting their proper autonomy."  Synodality is "the practical expression of the participation of the local Church in the governance of the universal Church, through deliberative bodies."

The extent to which Francis manifests these concepts in Laudato Si' is breathtaking. He cites seventeen different bishops' conferences or regional meetings (some of them more than once) from six continents. In order of appearance, they represent: Southern Africa, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, Argentina, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, New Zealand, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, Portugal, Mexico, and Australia.

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Ten Quick Takeaways from Laudato Si'

1.       The encyclical strongly affirms the climate science and the gravity of the environmental challenge. The pope states clearly that the recent global warming is due to greenhouse gas emissions, caused mainly by human activity. He delves into the science, and even discusses risk factors like ocean acidification, the loss of tropical forests, and the release of methane from melting ice sheets. He calls climate change one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Overall, the discussion of the environmental threats is deep and wide-ranging, with discussions of water, ecosystems, and biodiversity. In places, the diagnosis is characteristically blunt: “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.

2.       In the face of this crisis, the pope lambasts those who fail to act. Noting the failure to find solutions to the environmental crisis, Pope Francis pins the blame on obstruction by vested interests, general indifference, and blind confidence in technical solutions. He is particularly critical of people who possess more resources or more political and economic power, who seem concerned with “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. He notes that special interests trump the common good and manipulate information so that their own plans will not be affected. He criticizes a habit of evasiveness designed to feed “self-destructive vices”.

3.       The encyclical calls for a dramatic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, and for rich countries to help poorer countries on this path. It notes that fossil fuels need to be “progressively and quickly replaced” with renewables. This requires action at the global, national, and local levels. Given the complete failure of governments to reach agreement almost a quarter century after the Rio Earth summit in 1992, the pope notes that “we believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions”. Noting that the poor pay the price for climate change—and indeed, that an “ecological debt” exists between north and south—Pope Francis also calls for the richer countries, who have enjoyed prosperity at the cost of polluting the planet, to help the poorer countries overcome climate change and move to lower-carbon energy systems.

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Laudato Si' Press Conference: Twitter Roundup

This morning Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' was released and presented by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace.” Alongside Turkson were other presenters: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; Professor John Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Institute for Climate Impact in Potsdam; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher from Rome. The following is some selected Twitter coverage of the event as it happened.

The conference begins:

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Massimo Faggioli on 'Laudato si''

Just posted to the homepage, Massimo Faggioli's reading of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato si'.

In some ways, Laudato si’ picks up where Evangelii gaudium left off. Francis decries the “culture of waste,” abuses of technology, and profit-mad globalization. As expected, he affirms the scientific consensus on global warming. In order to better listen to what the earth is telling us, Francis writes, the church must advocate for the poor—the first to suffer the effects of climate change. The pope rejects “demographic solutions” (like Paul VI in Humanae vitae, but Francis does not quote that text here), such as population control. He criticizes wealthy nations that leverage the needs of poorer ones for political control. Particularly strong is the pope’s analysis of the relations between politics, the global economy, and information, which is manipulated by business interests. Francis laments that in the debate on the environment, the role of politics is largely absent.

The Gospel calls the church to speak out against whatever threatens the dignity of every human being, including inequality. In this sense, the ecology of Francis is fully prolife: respect for people and respect for other creatures are closely connected. The strongest section of Laudato Si’ is its critique of technocracy (a skepticism shared by Benedict XVI). The “technocratic paradigm” is reflected in our failure to grasp the fact that many of the earth’s resources are finite. For Francis, technology is never neutral—it can be used to ill effect. The market itself will not correct this on its own. Therefore the church itself should offer a unifying voice in order to help us break free from the technocratic paradigm. To that end, Francis urges us to rethink our consumerist excesses: a good relationship with creation presupposes a good relationship with the Creator.

Ecology, according to Francis, always includes care for the poor, for the marginalized, and for nature. It also means protecting culture: the word “inculturation” does not appear in the text, but for Laudato si’ true ecology must be inculturated, not imported with a colonialist mindset. Authentic “human ecology” does not ignore sexual differences: accepting masculinity and femininity is a way of respecting creation, the pope writes, rather than imposing our will on it. In this Catholic presentation of ecology, society has a role in defending the common good, as do nations and governments.

Read the rest right here.

Was the encylical leak a violation of journalistic ethics?

Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, widely seen as skeptical of the Francis papacy, has published an Italian draft of the pope's encyclical on the environment, which is scheduled to be released Thursday morning. One Vatican official called the leak "a heinous act." As word of the leak spread, my Twitter feed blew up with complaints that Magister had violated journalistic ethics by writing about an "embargoed" document. And Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, seemed to agree. Emphasizing that Magister's copy is not the final draft, Lombardi suggested that L'Espresso's decision to run with it was unprofessional. "The rules of the embargo remain in place," Lombardi said in a statement.

Magister got his copy from an unofficial source (obviously curial) who imposed no restrictions on its use. An embargo obtains when a source gives a journalist (or journalists) information with the understanding that it cannot be reported until a certain time. The Vatican, for example, is allowing accredited journalists to read the encyclical two hours before it is officially released. The embargo doesn't begin until Thursday morning, when reporters receive their advance copies. If one of them publishes on that text before at 11 a.m. local time, then the embargo will have been broken.

So Lombardi is mistaken. Magister didn't commit any journalistic sin. He got a legitimate scoop, decided making the Holy See Press Office crazy was a price worth paying, and wrote it up. What's unfortunate about the leak is that it will make the Holy See more wary of providing advance warning of the publishing dates of papal documents.

Archbishop Nienstedt resigns. (UPDATED)

This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.

Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."

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Bishop Sanchez Sorondo responds to criticism

I recently posted a response by Margaret Archer—president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—to an attack essay by Stefano Gennarini in First Things. This essay accused the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, of openly defying the position of the Holy See on “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights.”

The good bishop has now published his own response, and it is detailed, thoughtful, and gracious. I invite you to read it without my editorial comment.

But I want to step back and think about this for a minute. We had an event at the Vatican that focused mainly on climate change and how it hurts the world’s poorest people. But instead of engaging on this vitally important point, agitators like Gennarini turn the debate back to abortion. And pretty soon, that’s all everyone is talking about. He has forced an upstanding Catholic bishop to go on record stating that he is in fact opposed to abortion!

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a tried-and-true tactic. But we shouldn’t play into their hands.  We need to put these people back on the defensive. The pro-life position can never be limited to abortion. It must encompass all forms of the “throwaway” culture that Pope Francis mentions so often, all ways that life and dignity are degraded and cheapened. It must encompass the issues that the Pontifical Academy is passionate about, including human trafficking and modern forms of slavery. And it certainly must encompass the need to reduce carbon emissions, given that our “business as usual” trajectory is going to prove catastrophic for human life and health, especially for the poor and the unborn.

So let the response to such provocation be: “I oppose abortion, but do you oppose decarbonization”? I would like to hear an answer to that question from Stefano Gennarini, George Weigel, Robbie George, Raymond Arroyo, Bill Donohue and all others who seek to downplay and dismiss these concerns.

I would argue that, from a moral perspective, opposing decarbonization is not that different from supporting legalized abortion—you might not be the acting moral agent, but you are still complicit in the structures of sin. Putting it another way, it might not be formal cooperation with evil, but it is certainly material.

And sin is the right word. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been saying this for a long time—degrading the earth, including by changing the climate, is a sin. Pope Francis has used similar words in the past. And given the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s representative at the launch of the encyclical next week, what’s the betting that this theme will feature prominently?

Discussing the encyclical

"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity."  Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare.   They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. 

The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons.  Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy.  Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy.  And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting. 

So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document. 

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Twin Cities archdiocese charged with child endangerment.

On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”

In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”

In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.

The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”

The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”

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Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment coming June 18.

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis's much-anticipated, chewed-over, complained-about, prebuttaled encyclical on the enivornment (reportedly titled "God is for the Carbon Tax," or something) will be published on Thursday, June 18. Sorry, one-time senator/perennial presidential canididate Rick "Leave Science to the Scientists" Santorum. Francis has more science degrees than you do. And more scientists at his disposal.

Start your engines.

Cardinal Pell's response to victims "almost sociopathic," says member of pope's sexual-abuse commission.

During the May 31 broadcast of Australia’s 60 Minutes, a member of Pope Francis’s sexual-abuse commission described Cardinal George Pell’s treatment of victims as “almost sociopathic.” The 60 Minutes segment focused on Pell’s response to abuse allegations while he ministered in Australia, including testimony alleging that the cardinal tried to buy a victim’s silence, and that he was involved in the decision to move the nation’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes—claims the cardinal denies. Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, was criticized for appearing with Ridsdale at his first trial in 1993 (Ridsdale was eventually convicted of more than one hundred counts of assault). The cardinal has a “catalogue of denials…a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” according to Peter Saunders, selected by Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders explained that he based his judgments on conversations with Australian victims. The cardinal’s position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—the office created by Francis to oversee the Vatican’s finances—is “untenable,” Saunders said. “I would go as far to say,” he continued, “that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”

Responses from Pell and from the Vatican spokesman came quickly. Before the program had even aired (after the network released promotional material), Pell issued statements calling Saunders’s comments “false” and “outrageous”—and suggested he might take legal action. (Saunders defended his remarks on June 1, saying they were “not slanderous.”)  While acknowledging “the important work Mr. Saunders has done as a survivor of abuse to assist victims, including the establishment of a victims survivors group in the United Kingdom,” the cardinal suggested that Saunders had overstepped his role as a member of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. The statutes of that body “make it clear that the Commission's role does not include commenting on individual cases,” according to Pell, “nor does the commission have the capacity to investigate individual cases.”

Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, made the same point in his June 1 statement. But he went further, stating that Pell’s responses to the Australian government’s investigation of child abuse have “always” been careful and thorough. The cardinal’s recent statements about 60 Minutes “must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention,” according to Lombardi. No doubt the cardinal’s statements about his role in the scandal deserve both respect and attention, but have they always been reliable?

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Gay-friendly Catholics

Following up on Ireland’s referendum in favor of same-sex marriage, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s New York Times (May 27, 2015) provides some interesting information but stops short of the difficult question. Bruni points out that most of the countries around the world that have accommodated same-sex marriage or civil unions have large Catholic populations, and that American Catholics are the most “gay-friendly” of all Christian denominations, when it comes to questions about marriage or civil unions. But the real issue is why Catholics find themselves in this somewhat surprising position, surprising not least because church leaders, even those who ask “who am I to judge?” teach the opposite of what a significant majority of the Catholic people seem to believe. If we leave aside the tempting thought that Catholics say this because their bishops teach the opposite, what can they possibly be thinking?

One possible response to the U.S. context that would be high on the list of First Things would be to point out that the “Catholics” polled in the Pew research are always self-identified Catholics, that this includes many who are rarely if ever in church, and that the more often an individual goes to church, the more likely s/he is to be in the minority of the nay-sayers. It is also true that if you look at generational cohorts, it is in the youngest groups that the highest percentage of those favoring same-sex marriage can be found. And everyone knows, don’t they, that this is also the cohort least likely to be found in church on any given Sunday. The counter is pretty obvious: there is no litmus test for a Catholic (remember James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody!”), and perhaps the younger Catholics have experience that older Catholics don’t. In my long years as a teacher of mostly Catholic undergraduates I have found the growing support for gays and lesbians to have nothing much to do with moral relativism and everything to do with encountering and befriending gay and lesbian kids in high school.

So what other answers might there be to the question of why American Catholics are so supportive? I have three suggestions and I hope that readers will add more. First, perhaps the fact that Catholics have a celibate clergy that includes a large number of gay men means that the fear bred from ignorance is less likely to be operative than in other traditions. Second, could it be that a natural law approach to ethical questions, that is, that reason should guide our thinking and our conclusions,  is bred into the Catholic bone? Third, might Catholics be so imbued with the sacramental principle that they recognize any expression of genuine love to be evidence of God’s presence in the world, and hence to be cherished rather than condemned? In Ireland or here or elsewhere, the actual principal difference between leaders and people, on same-sex issues or birth control or religious freedom or perhaps many other issues, is that the leadership thinks deductively while the rank and file think inductively. Experience trumps ideology, which—strangely enough—is Pope Francis’s consistent message!

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

Video: Peter Steinfels with a Proposal for the Next Synod

Now on the homepage we're featuring “Contraception & Honesty: A Proposal for the Next Synod,” by Peter Steinfels. In this video interview, Peter explains what prompted him to write “Contraception & Honesty” and talks more about the issues he raises in it. There was a “glaring gap” in the work of last year’s synod, Peter says: "[T]he lack of attention to the question of contraception. Why did the synod appear to treat so perfunctorily the issue that was, and is, the starting point for the unraveling of Catholic confidence in the church’s sexual ethics and even its credibility about marriage?" From his story:

A synod that grabs headlines about remarried or cohabiting or same-sex Catholic couples but says nothing fresh about the spectacularly obvious rift between official teaching and actual behavior in Catholic married life is an invitation to cynicism. It could prove to be a crucial test of Pope Francis’s papacy.

But even if the real issue is acknowledged, “what can the upcoming synod do about it? How can the synod fathers, in a two-week session, realistically address a problem that has been festering since 1968?” First, talk candidly about “the pain and division that have wracked the church for decades now over contraception.” Then, “urge a renewed study renewed study of church teaching on marriage and sexuality” with 2018 as a target date. That would be the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae.

You can read all of “Contraception & Honesty” here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

Sustainable development is about decarbonization, not depopulation

Last week, I wrote about the major Vatican symposium on climate change and sustainable development. In that post, I wrote about the unfortunate journalistic tendency to give equal weight to the world-renowned climate scientists in the hall, and the rag-taggle bunch of climate change denialists from the Heartland Institute shaking their fists outside.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

In his most recent column, John Allen does the same. He notes that the Heartland people were “pointedly not invited inside the Vatican and UN conference”. Well, of course not. I don’t think the people who believe the moon landings were faked get invited to NASA gatherings either! It’s a peculiar quirk of American journalism to give credence to what is essentially quackery in this area.

But Allen then goes one step further. He talks to an Italian activist called Cascioli – seemingly his sole source for this story – who assures him that “environmentalism and population control are intrinsically linked”.

Read more

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E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the homepage.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.