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A cook's lament

This will be my final consumer critique of 2013. Graham Crackers! The Christmas pie is Cognac Pie in a graham cracker crust. Amazingly delicious.

What a hassle to find a box of PLAIN graham crackers. Plain they must be, no cinammon, no honey, no tutti fruitti! Made by Nabisco, they come in a red box. They have been available--well, for centuries, at least two. Desperate, I finally found two boxes hidden behind soda crackers at D'Agostinos.

What's the problem? Sold out? Not stocked? Woe!

Old Year/New Year

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas celebration, hopefully in the company of loved ones.

In today's Washington Post, the always-worth-reading Anne Applebaum has a piece on global challenges that will continue to press on us in the New Year:

Russia and China do not coordinate these actions, and there isn’t much love lost between them, either. But the elites of both of these countries do have one thing in common: They dislike the institutions of liberal democracy as practiced in Europe, the United States, Japan and elsewhere, and they are determined to prevent them from spreading to Moscow or Beijing. These same elites believe that Western media, Western ideas and especially Western capitalism — as opposed to state capitalism — pose a threat to their personal domination of their economies. They want the world to remain safe for their particular form of authoritarian oligarchy, and they are increasingly prepared to pay a high price for it.

The rest is here.

New issue, new stories

Our new issue is now live, giving you a little time in advance of Christmas to see what's inside -- such as this multi-part reassessment of the theology in Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life, and this piece on the collected essays of Jean-Paul Sartre. See the full table of contents here.

Also posted today: E. J. Dionne Jr. on how the defrocking of a Methodist minister and the "Duck Dynasty" controversy "remind us that the appearance of a Savior whose ministry led to the creation of one of the world's most durable religions did not end our battles with each other over what God demands." More:

Yet when even the pope wonders aloud as to whether it's appropriate for him to judge, you begin to see the difficulty of deciding what "true Christians" ought to believe. This raises the question of whether the religiously based principles are merely cultural artifacts that we bend to our own immediate purposes.

The answer lies in embracing a humility about how imperfectly human beings understand the divine, which is quite different from rejecting God or faith. This humility defines the chasm between a living religious tradition and a dead traditionalism. We need to admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment. And those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that over the history of the faith, there have been occasions when "a supposedly changeless truth has changed," as the great church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it.

Read the whole thing here.

Pope's trip to Holy Land coming into focus

From Yediot Aharonot yesterday and The Tablet today come some tentative details about Pope Francis's trip to the Holy Land. The Israeli newspaper reports that the short trip's proposed schedule has "dashed hopes" of a Papal Mass in Jerusalem.

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Let's Have a War

Last week reports were that Congressional action on further Iran sanctions had faded. Apparently not so. The "Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013," has been introduced by Senators Schumer, Mendez, and Kirk. It is likely to be taken up after Congress returns in the new year. 

Jim Lobe has a run-down of its major provisions. You can read it here: Lobe Log.

The bill's provisions ham-string diplomatic efforts to negotiate with Iran over it's nuclear program. It would require that Iran give up the program, which is unlikely. It undermines the goal of the current negotiations cutting back and ending any potential nuclear bomb  program. The bill will have none of that.

Then there's this: "…if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence…"

The qualifying words and phrases notwithstanding, that looks like blanket permission for Israel to bomb Iran. If Netanyahu decides to do so the United States will be forced to join in.

Lobe calls it the "Wag the Dog" bill. But why not "Let's Give Israel a Blank Check"?

On the homepage: Minimal wages; Kaveny on ACLU & bishops

Two new items featured on the homepage today. First, the editors on working for less than a living wage:

Contrary to popular misconceptions nourished by some in the media, most of the low-wage workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are not teenagers earning a little pocket money and learning some basic job skills. More than 90 percent of them are adults and almost a third are parents. The federal government spends around $7 billion a year on public assistance just for the families of fast-food workers. If conservative lawmakers are serious about streamlining entitlement programs and promoting self-reliance, they should be lining up behind proposals to raise the minimum wage.

So why aren’t they? It isn’t for lack of public support. A large majority of voters from both parties are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Whatever their opinions about welfare, most Americans agree with Adam Smith that those who work for a living should actually make one. Opponents of a higher minimum wage say it will only hurt the poor by reducing the number of jobs: when labor costs are higher, they warn, employers will hire fewer workers. This argument has a certain intuitive force, but several recent studies suggest that modest minimum-wage increases have no significant effect on employment levels. Lobbyists for retailers and fast-food restaurants also argue that higher wages will drive up business costs, which will be passed along to consumers as higher prices. But research suggests that a $10.10 minimum wage would add only a few pennies to the price of a hamburger. The lobbyists don’t mention that the big corporations they represent could also absorb some of the higher labor costs by accepting lower profit margins.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, Cathleen Kaveny looks deeper into the ACLU's complaint against the USCCB in the case of Tamesha Means, who allegedly received medically negligent treatment in the course of her pregnancy and miscarriage at a Catholic health facility:

The alleged negligent act: promulgating the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

According to the complaint, the USCCB is responsible because it “directed the course of care Plaintiff received.” ... According to the plaintiff, Directive 27 does not require Catholic hospitals to disclose the option of a “previability pregnancy termination,” because (she claims) the church does not see it as morally legitimate. The plaintiff also blames Directive 45, which prohibits abortion. That directive reads: “Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” The plaintiff contends that Directive 45 prevented [the hospital] from either completing the miscarriage or referring her to a place that would do so.

But has Means identified the right defendants? Contrary to popular belief, the USCCB does not have the power to tell individual bishops—or Catholic health-care systems—what to do and what not to do.

Read the whole thing here.

Inequality, Religion and the Limits of Civil Society

The comments from my last blog entry turned in the direction of civil society and religion. We seem to be living in a new Gilded Age, an era of massive economic inequality with no apparent end in sight. Can the influence of religion – via the indirect influence of civil society – address and perhaps ameliorate this condition? I am pessimistic about this possibility.

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"Least significant tempest-in-a-teapot in the history of world Jewry." Maybe yes, maybe no.

dotCommonweal's needler-in-chief, Gerelyn Hollingsworth, has needled yours truly for failing to mention the vote of the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions (but not Israeli academics) for the West Bank occupation and settlements. NYTimes report.

INSTEAD, here is a report of a community discussion, "What it means to be pro-Israel in America?" held at the esteemed 92nd Street Y.

Apparently it means different things to different people (surprise!).  Panel members included Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, David Harris of the AJC, and John Podhoretz of Commentary, with Jane Eisner of the Forward moderating (sort of). The audience also seems to have played an active part. It is refreshing and edifying to know that within the Jewish community, there are people willing to think about and debate this fraught subject (though one of the panelists left in a huff).  Haaretz (Chemi Shalev)  gives a vivid account of the proceedings.

My daughter, my conservatism

There ought to be a word – something not quite the same as gratitude – for that tingling feeling inspired by a Ross Douthat column noting a tilt toward conservatism by people who by all accounts should be liberals, especially one that uses a fictional character from a novel by a New York literary darling to make its point. Because as Douthat helpfully confirms, things are more complicated for liberals than they might have thought, especially when it comes to raising daughters.

Don’t I know it! As the father of a girl and a parent whose adult social set overlaps with the un- and never-married, plus the divorced and remarried, plus the spouseless adoptive-parent, plus the same-sex unmarried with children, plus the mixed-race couple with dogs, not to mention the two-parent (one woman, one man) married, my own uncomfortable reckoning arises from contemplation of my daughter’s future happiness, and a young male – all right, a boy – named Dexter P.

This character, Dex to his friends, doesn’t technically exist; he’s a composite of several of the boys in my daughter’s fifth-grade class at her Brooklynite elementary school. But his type exists, in more or less the same form, wherever ten-year-olds congregate and socialize (in playground and lunch room) or pair off (as math and reading buddies). Not the worst kid, by any means: Dex is no bully, and he doesn’t wipe his nose on his sleeve as much as he did even last May. He’s attentive, after a fashion, and mildly artistic, judging from the cover of his report on westward expansion. But he can be a source of irritation, if not exactly misery, especially for the girls whose section of the coat closet he shares. He doesn’t mean to make them unhappy; he even seems to try to please them, in his way, which is the way of so many spirited young boys – swiping their pencils when they’re not looking, for instance, or falling out of his chair on purpose or fake-belching. Yet what he ends up doing, in spite of himself, is provoking their displeasure.

He does so by attempting to operate within an educational and cultural landscape in which biology hasn’t changed, yet expectations – and maybe even abilities? -- have been decoupled from gender. Dexter P. does what seems like the right thing: Round this number up to the nearest tenth, he might suggest to my daughter during an in-class session on decimals, even going so far as to helpfully if mistakenly erase her correct answer. Or he might snatch her saxophone case and start to haul it up the four flights to the classroom only to abandon it somewhere on the stairwell between the second and third floors because it’s too heavy for him. Indeed, these acts, well-intentioned as they are, seem to be the hidden taproots of the typical fifth-grade female’s academic and social angst, and one of the plausible explanations for her increased sullenness and a noticeable uptick in back-sass in the hours immediately after school.

One obvious solution to the Dexter P. problem is a culture that downplays the abilities of girls so that boys can continue to receive the attention and validation they want and need from them. To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight more immediately available through daughters than through sons – especially since girls retain the mysterious power to shape future-men. For example, must my daughter (or anyone’s) continue to outperform Dex in math? How will she ever graciously cede oversight of the household checking account – to say nothing of finding happiness in a household in the first place – if she persists in doing better on her assignments? Or, why can’t she switch to a lighter, more feminine instrument like flute or clarinet, thus giving Dexter P. the chance to realize the fruits of his chivalrous offer to carry her instrument up the stairs for her – and in the process allow him to re-establish, firmly, the behavioral norms inhering in the physical differences between male and female?

No matter what studies or Ross Douthat say about the likelihood of turning into a social conservative, now that I’ve begun to flirt with this insight—though I’ll admit a formal engagement may still be some ways off—I’ve tiptoed a little closer to a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name (cough! – male chauvinism – cough!). Next up: getting my wife and daughter out of Brooklyn, for their own good of course. Can’t wait for Douthat’s next column! 

Is Religion Making Inequality Worse?

As a complement to the excellent recent essays here on libertarianism, capitalism and religion, I wanted to make two very uncomplicated observations. What troubles me is the possible connection between the two; I think that without question a causal relationship exists, but I want to open matters up for discussion.

First observation: in economic terms, the United States is the most unequal of all industrialized nations. One could argue about the different ways of measuring this, but the pattern is clear, especially when one focuses on a measure like income distribution.

Second observation: the United States is the most religious of all advanced industrialized democracies. A majority of Americans who claim some affiliation (roughly 16% claim none) are Christian.

We can see a correlation between inequality and religious faith. Is there causation as well? Does contemporary, American-style Christianity in some sense exacerbate or even cause income disparity? Or is it the other way around? Is the intensity of contemporary faith merely our way of dealing with (masking, repressing, even legitimating) the ugly reality of our economic world?

If one is tempted to respond by saying that the correlation here really means nothing, or that religion and civil society somehow serve as a barrier against even greater inequality, consider the example of other nations. Those advanced industrialized democracies with the lowest rates of religious affiliation and church attendance tend to score relatively well on measures of inequality.

Is religion making us less equal? 

Peter Steinfels responds to George McKenna

Over at Human Life Review, Peter Steinfels has a response to George McKenna's critique of Peter's June 2013 Commonweal article "Beyond the Stalemate." (You'll remember that in October, Commonweal editor Paul Baumann weighed in on McKenna's piece on our blog.) Here is an excerpt from Peter's response: 

It does not matter that McKenna’s critique contains a number of nasty barbs aimed at me and my religious views. What matters is that, while I strongly doubt that Human Life Review readers (or for that matter Commonweal readers) would completely agree with “Beyond the Stalemate” in undistorted form, an open-minded and accurate reading might at least provoke constructive thought. But that would require a return to the central concerns and argument of my article rather than what “successive readings” convinced McKenna I was really up to.

And what was that? My “underlying point,” he claimed, is to propose a “grand bargain” between the species of liberal Catholics he labels Commonweal Catholics and their “pro-choice brethren on the left.” And what were the terms of this “grand bargain,” in McKenna’s view? “We will eschew any more public rhetoric about a ‘moment of conception’—if you will just agree with us that at some point in the pregnancy the occupant of the womb can be called human and thus entitled to the same legal protections we give to the already-born.”

All very interesting. And completely false.

You can read Peter's response in its entirety here.

Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.

But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed.  And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.

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Nelson Mandela

In 2000, our editors wrote: “Will Nelson Mandela ever stop astounding and humbling the world by the force of his moral vision and the transformative authority of his personal courage and conviction?” The question was in response to Mandela's efforts to end Brundi's civil war, but it expresses what has been said in so many of the tributes in the week since his death, in wonder over how much he was able to accomplish. Commonweal over the years chronicled Mandela's fight against apartheid, his imprisonment, and his release and subsequent election as president of South Africa. But we'd like to single out this brief item our editors composed after Mandela's 1990 U.S. tour. Read it here.

Getting Used to Things

The things we grow used to.  This piece in the New York Times this morning, on the difficulty of agreeing about how to remember the days when Montgomery, Alabama, was a center of the slave trade illustrates how “Southern history is a custody battle still in litigation,” and it reminded me of an interview with Shelby Foote, which I bumped into a few days ago while looking for something else.

Foote, a native of the Mississippi Delta, spoke mostly of William Faulkner (to whom, as a young man, he had boldly introduced himself while his best friend, Walker Percy, shyly cowered in a car parked in Faulkner’s driveway) but he included some searing, honest and fascinating comments about racism and the culture in which he grew up. Acknowledging the evil of it, he nevertheless remembers how that culture could regard a black person (though he doesn’t use that term) as “somewhere between an animal and a human being,” and admits that “I lived in a society that was filled with horrors…they were not horrors at the time.”

I can’t help but wonder if there will come a time when many of us will be speaking of the commonplace, unremarkable horrors of our own time and country, among them, the aborting of nearly a million unborn children annually and our evident nonchalance about it. 

We can get used to anything, it seems.

New issue, new stories

We’ve just posted the latest issue to the homepage, and here are some of the highlights:

  • J. Peter Nixon writes there’s still reason to be optimistic about Obamacare – but that “to understand why, it helps to know a few details about the law.”
  • David Cloutier writes on how luxury compromises Christian witness: “If many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable.”
  • John Garvey on the importance of vows – and “the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken” [subscription].

See the full table of contents for the December 20 issue right here.

Also featured today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the return of the working-class hero: “For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news.” Read the whole column here

Blaming the Poor again

Here's something I learned today, from Joe Carter's entry over at Sirico's Acton Institute: the working poor "tend to make terrible economic decisions." Why? Because they “think about money differently than other economic classes.” For more, see

Markets and Morals (back to libertarianism)

The market is an abstraction, a mobilized concept with a set of functions. In a contemporary turn of phrase, one of those functions is speaking “truth to power.” What power? The power of politics. What truth? This is a trickier question, but the heart of the idea of the truth of the market is that it exposes human beings “as they really are,” without all of the accretions of social norms, mores, customs and so on. This idea became prominent in the late eighteenth century. The market has truth, speaks truth, because it allegedly represents human nature in a more accurate way than politics does: politics is dangerous because it is a mobilized expression of vanity or self-love, whereas economics serves as a helpful check on the cruel excesses of power because it is an expression of nothing more than self-interest. 

Sirico and other libertarians are right when they emphasize that this is a moral choice. Note however that the truth procedure tied-up with this choice – with a market that “speaks truth to power,” the power of the state – is also a choice about human nature. The market speaks truth precisely because it is supposed to represent human beings as they really are. As I see it, one problem here – and a question that libertarian Catholics have to answer – concerns the contrast between this modern construction of human nature and a much older understanding. Genesis 1:26 of course tells us that human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. I like this concept, and thinkers from Augustine forward have struggled mightily with it; are we now to understand that self-interest reflects the divine image? Are we to believe that buying and selling, saving, and work are the trinity within us? Is that the libertarian contribution?

Special feature: Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, thirty years later

Thirty years ago Friday, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin came to Fordham University to deliver a follow-up lecture on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” [.pdf], a presentation in which he introduced his formulation for a consistent ethic of life [.pdf]. 

I was a freshman at Fordham in December 1983; dealing for the first time with end-of-term papers and final exams, I did not attend the lecture. But it was big news on campus (and off), its key passages highlighted in the official student paper and discussed in my theology, philosophy, and political science courses in the semesters to come. To an eighteen-year-old recently compelled by the 1980 proclamation from President Carter to register for the draft, and made further anxious (like many of my classmates) by the belligerence of the Reagan administration’s nuclear-weapons rhetoric—limned with references to scripture—Bernardin’s wedding of issues made sudden, stunning sense. A pro-life position consisted of more than focusing singularly on abortion; it also meant opposing what he called “the moral and political futility of nuclear war” and directing states “against the exercise” of capital punishment. A formulation like “consistent ethic of life” provided shape for inchoate railings against what I was beginning to think of as the injustices of the day, coming along in time for the moral and political awakening common to first-year students. I still remember the weather (pouring Bronx rain) and how my mother drove the seventy miles from New Jersey to hear Bernardin in person, a basket of all my younger brothers’ laundry in the back seat because the washing machine had broken down and she needed to stop at a Laundromat on the way home.

That’s my personal reflection, in service of directing you to a more thorough and informed discussion over on our website. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Bernardin’s lecture, we’ve asked four contributors to reassess his idea for a consistent ethic of life and to comment on its influence and its relevance today. Lisa Fullam, David Cloutier, Robert P. Imbelli, and Cathleen Kaveny are the participants in the discussion, “Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later,” which you can find here. Once you’ve read it, come back to this post to share your comments. 

U.S. test scores low. So what?

Commonweal contributor Rand Richards Cooper flags a typically blunt reaction from Diane Ravitch to news that U.S. students performed less well than kids from other countries on international standardized tests. Ravitch castigates what she calls the Bad News Industry for making a big deal of this because the United States has never, in half a century, performed much better than it did this time and, further, it probably just doesn’t matter how our kids stack up against their counterparts in Finland, Japan, or Germany.

In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called “Are International Tests Worth Anything?,” which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth-the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation. …

Never do [test proponents] explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce. From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores … If they mean anything at all, [they] show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.

Ravitch can always be counted on to re-introduce rationality to the debate over education “reform,” whether via her rapid-response blogging or opinion pieces in the press. The recent book she refers to was of course reviewed last month in our pages by Jackson Lears – a review Ravitch herself called “The. Most. Brilliant. Review. of. Reign. of. Error. Ever.” [punctuation hers] If you want to know what’s being done to schools (and to kids, teachers, and communities) in the name of “reform,” it’s always a good time to read it -- maybe no more so than when the Bad News Industry is on full alert.

Does your new health plan cover abortion? Good luck finding out.

Just posted to the homepage: my piece on elective abortion coverage on the health exchanges. I'll have more to say about this later, but for now, here's a preview:

On Sunday, the Obama administration’s self-imposed deadline for fixing passed, with seemingly decent results. For the past month, the administration had been consumed with that task. But in the meantime another serious problem seems to have escaped its attention: Federal and state health-care exchanges make it nearly impossible to tell whether their plans cover elective abortion. And in some states customers don’t even have the option to purchase abortion-free coverage.

Last month, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was brought before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to be questioned about the failures of “If someone…has strongly held pro-life views, can you commit to us to make sure that the federal exchanges that offer that [abortion coverage] is clearly identified and so people can understand if they're going to buy a policy that has abortion coverage or not?” asked Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). “I don’t know,” Sebelius answered. “I know exactly the issue you’re talking about. I will check and make sure that is clearly identifiable.”

That was November 1. It’s still nearly impossible to determine whether plans on the exchanges cover elective abortion. For example, on the New York State exchange—supposedly one of the best—the signup process is painless. You create a username and password, enter your legal name, address, Social Security number, and within moments you’re shopping for coverage. You can compare several plans at all levels of coverage (bronze, silver, gold, platinum). Monthly premiums are displayed first, followed by deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. You can explore a plan’s outpatient-services coverage, its prescription-drug coverage, mental-health services, lab tests, etc. You can even see its pediatric-vision coverage. But you can’t find out whether a plan covers elective abortion.

Read the rest right here.