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Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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5 ways to apologize for your homeless-irrigation system.

Like most people who think it’s a bad idea to spray homeless people with water in order to move them along, I found myself rather surprised by last week’s news that the cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco had been doing just that for the past two years. The archdiocese’s response was swift. The day the story broke it hired a crisis communications consultant, began dismantling the homeless irrigation system, and issued a statement that included an apology. Obviously when a Catholic church is discovered to have been regularly dousing the poor with water—for whatever reason—it has a major PR problem. Facing such a crisis, a church’s best bet is to admit the mistake, explain how it happened, and offer sincere apologies to the offended. In other words, stop digging. But that’s not exactly what the Archdiocese of San Francisco did, and that’s why it’s hard to accept the words it arranged in the form of an apology. How might it have been more convincing? Let’s count the ways.

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Has the National Review Lost Touch with the Christian Tradition?

National Review founder William F. Buckley with an early edition of the magazine

For my 18th birthday I got a subscription to National Review from my grandfather. When I thanked him he replied brusquely, "You've spent your whole life in that house getting one side of the story. I thought it was time you heard the other side."

As I was preparing to go to college in a faraway city, that was music to my ears—I was moving out of my parents' house anyway, and this meant I'd be exposed to even more new ideas. As the year went on however, I read each new issue with a growing sense of disappointment: not because the ideas were conservative, but because so many of the articles were just flat-out illogical and poorly argued.

Those memories came flooding back when reading David French's article, "Is Obama Really a Christian?", in the current issue of the magazine. What's most striking—and disappointing—about the piece is its smallness of mind.  When all the huffing and puffing is done about Rev. Wright, Black liberation theology, and the callers to Christian radio shows who are (still) convinced the president is a Muslim, French's argument boils down to the fact that President Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ...and acts like it.

Barack Obama may believe in black-liberation theology, or he may not. He may have a close relationship with God, or he may not. We can’t know his heart. But when it comes to his civic religion, President Obama is his church’s—and liberal Christianity’s—great and mighty instrument.

In reaching that conclusion, French betrays a startling degree of ignorance about the UCC and the broader Christian tradition. As Charlie Pierce noted on Esquire's Politics blog,

The UCC is a direct theological descendant of the Congregationalism that brought the Pilgrims here. Gradually, after the Great Awakening of the mid-18th Century, while losing people to Unitarianism, the Congregationalists began to merge with other denominations until the UCC was formed. But, right from the time the Pilgrims got on the boat, the church had a tradition of self-governance and a fundamental revulsion at the notion of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. It's not the New-Age-y self-help group that (French) seems to think it is. That the UCC is extensively involved in various causes that give the author the willies is his problem, not the church's.

Except for a passing mention that some Catholics didn't agree with some of Bill Clinton's policies, French demonstrates no awareness of Christian theology, traditions or practices outside of those within the relatively narrow confines of American Protestantism in recent decades. If only he'd been writing for a journal of serious conservative intellectual thought, maybe he'd have found an editor to introduce him to a world of Christian conservatism and orthodoxy that extended beyond his own experience.

Pope Francis accepts Cardinal Keith O'Brien's resignation.

Today the Holy See announced that Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland has resigned the "rights and privileges" of being a cardinal. The news follows the conclusion of a Vatican investigation of allegations that O'Brien sexually harrassed adult men, including a seminarian, and carried on a long-term sexual relationship with a priest. O'Brien, once an outspoken critic of homosexuality, resigned as archbishop of Edinburgh in 2013, admitting that "many times" his sexual conduct had "fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop, and cardinal.” And he recused himself from the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Until now, O'Brien had been living in a seaside home apparantly enjoying the rights and privileges of a cardinal. Not anymore. He won't be able to participate in any more conclaves, or act as an adviser to the pope. Still, O'Brien gets to keep his title, even if he's permitted to wear his red hat and vestments only in private.

This is "an extraordinarily decisive act of governance that combines justice with mercy," according to Gerard O'Collins. Andrea Tornielli called the pope's decision "courageous." It may be merciful and it's certainly extraordinary (the last time a cardinal resigned was in 1927). But is it decisive? Courageous? I have my doubts.

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Soaking the Homeless - Update

After the day-long media storm over news that San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral had for two years been using a watering system to douse homeless people sheltering in its alcoves, the archdiocese has issued an apology and states that the system has been removed. 

(Update: Bishop William Justice, who is also the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, addresses the press in this video clip. "Nobody mentioned anything for two years," he says at one point. "Not that that makes it right.")

The cathedral, the home church of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, installed the system about two years ago after learning about its effectiveness in the city’s financial district “as a safety, security and cleanliness measure.” The sprinklers, mounted about thirty feet high in four locations, would activate automatically every thirty to sixty minutes, for more than a minute, simultaneously in all locations. There were no signs to warn those gathered below that such a system was in use, though according to archdiocese spokesperson Larry Kramer, “No Trespassing” signs had been posted.

At the time of installation, the cathedral felt it was “fighting a losing battle against crack pipes and condoms and human waste,” Kramer said. The cathedral had tried extra lighting and security guards, without success, according to Kramer, who acknowledged there was “hesitation” about other methods – including gates to close off the areas in question. When asked whether the cathedral would have continued its practice of dousing homeless people if not for Wednesday’s report by a local radio station, Kramer allowed that that was a “fair” assumption. The method “worked,” he said, though it is unclear how well, given that homeless people were still sheltering in these areas, in some cases using umbrellas.

Though the archdiocese says it tried to get homeless people to move to other areas at the cathedral, it has not specifically identified those locations. Further, the system, according to reports, did not in fact clean the alcove areas: because no drainage system was installed, water would simply collect where it fell. The cathedral also installed the system without acquiring necessary city permits; it may also violate water-use laws in California, which is in its fourth year of damaging drought. Asked why or how the cathedral could have undertaken installation of a system of such scope in such a prominent structure, without permits, Kramer said the “why when and how of the original decision remains fuzzy.” He said that the cathedral – “normally assiduous” about process -- had acquired retroactive permitting for the original installation as it prepared to dismantle the system yesterday.

There’s more than what publicity people call “unfortunate optics” here. That a Catholic church could treat vulnerable people gathered on its own steps with such disregard is bad enough on its own, but there’s something additionally troubling about it being expressed so, well, cowardly -- from above, without warning, and automatically activated: set it, and forget it. Think about how those who approved the system and countenanced its continued operation might not have been all that far away, perhaps sleeping, and almost certainly dry.

But, said Kramer: “As human beings, they felt terrible.”

There may yet be more to come on this.

Coffin or Suitcase? Goldberg on Europe's Jews

In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.

Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots. 

The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.

“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”

After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews." 

Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.

A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans. 

Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."

As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

 

School's Out (for the sacrifice of Ishmael)

New York prides itself on the observance of religious holidays (at least by those whose religion it is). That includes school holidays and suspension of alternate side of the street parking (just observed Purim; Holy Thursday coming up!).

City officials have now added two Muslim holidays to the out-of-school schedule: Eid al Fatr, the end of Ramadan and Eid al Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. The Feast of Sacrifice commerates the willingness of Ibrahim (also known as Abraham) to follow Allah's (God's) command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Jews remember this event (with Isaac), and those who went to church on the second Sunday of Lent know that Catholics also remember Abraham's willingness.

This may be a welcome interfaith reminder for people of the Book. But if you were a Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim seven-year old boy in public school how might you understand this holiday? Rush to the end of the story to be reminded that God stayed your father's hand.

The pope's anniversary interview.

On the occasion of the second anniversary of his election, Pope Francis sat down with Mexican TV journalist Valentina Alazraki for a typically wide-ranging interview. They discussed the issues facing the Synod on the Family, the sexual-abuse scandal, the reform of the Curia, how long his papacy might last, and, perhaps most interesting, the conclave that made him pope.

“The phenomenon of a conclave vote is interesting," Francis explained. "There are very strong candidates. But many people do not know who to vote for. So six, seven, names are chosen that are a kind of depository, while people wait to see who to definitively vote for. This is how people vote when the group is large. I was not the recipient of definitive votes, but provisional ones, yes."

And then something happened, I do not know what. In the room I saw some strange signs, but... They asked me about my health...and stuff. And when we came back in the afternoon the cake was already in the oven. In two votes it was all over. It was a surprise even for me.

In the first vote of the afternoon when I realized the situation may be irreversible, next to me--and I want to speak about this because of our friendship--was Cardinal Hummes, a towering figure. At his age, he is the delegate of the Bishops Conference for the Amazon and is very active pastorally. Halfway through the first vote of the afternoon--because there were two--when we saw what was happening, he was right beside me telling me not to worry, this is how the Holy Spirit works. That amused me.

After the second vote when the two-thirds majority was reached, there was applause, there is always applause at this point in the conclaves, so he kissed me and told me not forget the poor and this phrase began to go round in my head and that's what led me to my choice of name. During the vote I was praying the rosary, I usually pray three rosaries daily, and I felt great peace, almost to the point of insentience.

The very same when everything was resolved, and for me this was a sign that God wanted it, great peace. From that day to this I have not lost it. It is "something inside" it is like a gift. I do not know what happened next. They made stand up. They asked me if I agreed. I said yes. I do not know if they made me swear on something, I forget. I was at peace. I went to change my vestments. And I went out and I wanted to go first to greet Cardinal Diaz, who was there in his wheelchair and after I greeted the other cardinals. Then I asked the vicar of Rome and Cardinal Hummes to accompany me. Something that was not planned in the protocol.

Then we went to pray in the Pauline Chapel, while Card. Tauran announced my name. After I came out and I did not know what to say. And you are the witnesses of everything else. I deeply felt that a minister needs the blessing of God, but also that of his people. I did not dare to ask the people to bless me. I simply said: pray that God may bless me through you. But it came out spontaneously, also my prayer for Benedict.

The interviewer asked whether Francis likes being pope. "I do not mind!" But it's not all it's cracked up to be. "The only thing I would like is to go out one day without being recognized," the pope continued, "and go to a pizzeria for a pizza."

Read the rest right here.

“Tilled too much and kept too little”: An Outline of the Ecology Encyclical?

Last week Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a lecture at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. He titled it “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis."

But he might well have titled it, An outline of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical.

Vatican expert and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh called the lecture “a curtain-raiser” from “the man whose council wrote the first draft.”

The lecture’s overall themes and key phrases resound with the language Pope Francis has used since day one of his pontificate. But more importantly, it signals both how scripture will be interpreted anew against the backdrop of ecological degradation and how Francis’s teaching on “integral ecology” builds on the magisterium of the previous two popes.

The phrase “integral ecology” seems primed to become the encyclical’s central idea. Turkson describes it as “the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.”

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Ecclesial Movements

The lead article in the current issue of America, "Rediscovering Jesus," is by Timothy Schilling (who often contributes to Commonweal). Tim, as some know, has been working in pastoral ministry in the Netherlands for many years. His article is a pastoral reflection upon Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium and its challenge to renew our relationship with the living Christ. Among other points, Schilling writes:

Interesting to see in the Netherlands is how helpful new ecclesial movements and small Christian communities can be in promoting a vital relationship with Christ. The Focolare movement, Sant’Egidio, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Emmanuel Community and many others prioritize the personal relationship with Christ and send forth believers who are ready to share their faith with others. At the national resource center for parishes where I work, we are looking into how parishes can do more of the same.

Coincidentally or providentially, Pope Francis delivered three important addresses last week (March 4, 6, and 7) to three ecclesial movements: Focolare, The Neocatechumenal Way, and Communion and Liberation. Though these talks are not yet posted in English on the Vatican's website, it's worthwhile to keep checking in for their appearance. If anyone has seen them in English elsewhere, please share the link.

 

The Continuing Martyrology

Today the Church commemorates the Martyrs Felicity and Perpetua killed in Carthage in 202 A.D. Each left behind a young child.
 
From the account of the Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua:
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honors, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendor and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.
And here are the names of the Coptic Christian Martyrs slaughtered in Libya in 2015:
Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, single from Menbal village;
Sameh Salah Farouq, married, one child, from Manqarius village;
Ezzat Boshra Nassif, married, with one son of 4 years, from Dafash village;
Mina Shehata Awad, from Al-Farouqeyya village;
Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, 27 years, married, with a baby of 10 months;
Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, single; both from al-Gabaly village.
 
All the following are from Al-Our village:
Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, married, three daughters and one son;
Guergues Milad Sanyut, single;
Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, married, three children from 7 to 13 years old;
Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, single
Magued Soliman Shehata, married, two daughters and a son;
Mina Fayez Aziz, single;
Samouïl Alham Wilson, married, three children, 6, 4 and 2 years old;
Bishoï Stephanos Kamel, single;
Samouïl Stephanos Kamel, single
Malak Abram Sanyut, married, three children;
Milad Makin Zaky, married, one daughter;
Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, single
Guergues Samir Megally Zakher, single;
Youssef Shukry Younan, single;
Malak Farag Ibrahim, married, a baby daughter.

Indian bishop: remarried Catholics shouldn't be 'rudely refused' Communion.

“I have heard of so many Catholics being rudely refused Eucharistic Communion because they are divorced persons and have remarried," said Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona, India, during a February 25 conference of priests. "We need to be kind and compassionate in communicating the Church doctrine and dogma," he continued. "We should have polite dialogue with the faithful instead of rudely turning them away.”

The seventy-five priests had gathered in central India for a meeting on “effective ministry to families in the light of the Synod.” Bishop Dabre also criticized the "contraceptive mentality," especially the widespread availability of condoms. “Sexual morality has sharply and widely declined and has been trivialized. So many betrayals and crimes take place because of the easy accessibility of contraceptives,” he said. Dabre serves as a member of the Indian bishops conference Office for Doctrine.

Read the rest at Vatican Radio.

African bishop on polygamy, homosexuality & divorce (oh my).

In a wide-ranging, at points jaw-dropping interview with Aleteia, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, signaled his openness to finding a way for remarried Catholics to be readmitted to Communion--and suggested the church might reinterpret Scripture to allow the "unbinding" of marriages. Palmer-Buckle, who is sixty-four years old, was selected by his brother bishops to represent Ghana at this October's Synod on the Family. Early in the interview, the archbishop makes it clear that he takes seriously Pope Francis's call for open discussion of the challenges facing Catholic families today.

There are people in polygamous relationships, who were involved in it before becoming Christians. Their family had to make a choice: to let go of one women or two women with all their children without hurting the children, without hurting the wives. So it is an issue.

How do I baptize children of polygamous marriages? What do I teach them? If I’m going to tell them, “Your daddy must let go of your mommy,” will that not hurt the child emotionally, even spiritually for the rest of his or her life, to the point that he or she may even decide the Church is bad because it broke up my family?

I can tell you for sure that there are polygamous marriages where you will be amazed at the harmony between the husband and his different wives, among the different wives, and among their children. It’s amazing. There are many, many other instances where there is so much hurt going on among the different women, among the different children, and these must be brought to the fore. How do we help all of those involved to look at Christ, and to what Christ invites them to?

On the question of gay people, despite the fact that "Africa has always frowned upon that," Palmer-Buckle refuses to "close my eyes to the fact that there are instances in Africa of homosexuals, people with homosexual tendencies, people with lesbian tendencies." Of course the church teaches that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, Palmer-Buckle says; that dignity must be protected. "And that is why we must help that individual listen to what God says about his or her state," he continues. "And I think that is the beauty of what the church teaches us."

This vexes the interviewer, Diane Montagna, who asks Palmer-Buckle whether last October's synod could have been clearer about what the church really teaches about homosexuality. Wasn't he worried that some had "hijacked" interim report--which suggested there might be "positive values" in "irregular" relationships--to claim the church was poised to approve of gay relationships. But the archbishop doesn't share her concern.

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Theodore Hesburgh, R.I.P.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame from from 1952 to 1987, giant of the Catholic Church in the United States, died late last night at the age of ninety-seven. Read the Notre Dame announcement here (don't miss the biography and photos), the New York Times obituary here, the Chicago Tribune's, the Washington Post's, and the Observer's.

Fr. Hesburgh wrote precious little for Commonweal over the decades (although he was very much written about). Both of his Commonweal articles appeared in 1961. The first was an excerpt from a talk he gave on American Catholic higher education in the twentieth century. The second was developed (it seems) from that address: "What are we doing to mediate, philosophically and theologically, as only the Catholic higher learning can," Hesburgh asked, "between these various extremes that make up the divided fabric of our society?" It's a queston worth pondering today.

In an interview with the campus paper, Heburgh spoke movingly about his vision for the university he loved:

“I think Notre Dame has to be a tremendous force for good, but it has to do it as an educational institution,” he said, his voice solemn. “We’re not a political party, we’re not a, you know, a bunch of gangsters with a lot of money trying to run things in a bad way. We’re trying our best to create a great country by putting into the mainstream of that country people who are not just knowledgeable, but they’re dedicated and they have high hopes for the future and they’re willing to work hard to be the best. To create the best country on earth.”

My friend Natalia Imperatori-Lee, who did her PhD at Notre Dame (and now teaches theology at Manhattan College) recalled her first enounter with Hesburgh, during her first year in South Bend. It was 2000:

Before I had any idea who he was, Fr. Hesburgh knocked on my carrel door and asked if I would help him say Mass in his office. I followed this old man back through the winding hallways of the library into his office, to a small room with an altar, where he had me do all the readings--including the gospel--and he recited the eucharistic prayers by heart. At the end, we hugged. He never mentioned his name.

Requiescat in pace.

Pope Francis offends entire country of Mexico.

On Monday Mexico's foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribreña, complained--"with sadness and concern"--that comments recently made by Pope Francis had stigmatzed the Mexican people. The Holy See spokesman was forced to issue a "clarification" of those remarks this morning. So what did Francis say that so wounded the Mexican government?

“Hopefully, we’re in time to avoid ‘Mexicanization,'" the pontiff wrote to an Argentine lawmaker last Saturday. “I’ve been talking with some Mexican bishops, and the situation is terrifying.” Francis was referring to Argentina's drug problem. According to the UN, Argentina is the third largest exporter of cocaine, after Colombia--and Mexico. The Mexican government was so upset that it hauled in the papal ambassafor to air its grief over Francis's remarks. It must have come as quite a shock when the papal ambassador informed the foreign minister that Mexico has a calamitous drug-trafficking problem.

Core Wars, Notre Dame, 2015

It’s no news that “core wars” have become rife at Catholic colleges and universities. As Gonzaga’s Academic Vice President Patricia Killen recently remarked in a paper given at King’s, the core curriculum has become “that project to which multiple and often conflicting desires, passions, hopes, fears, long-standing animosities, and deep commitments, both individual and organizational, cling like iron filings to a magnet.” (Core curriculum = an institution’s general education requirements, which all students must satisfy in some form or another.) The review of the core at Notre Dame, however, has become national news, thanks it seems to alumni rumbling and murmuring, expressed among other places on Twitter.

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Pope Francis: Married priests "on my agenda"--"reform of the reform" not so much.

This week, during the bishop of Rome's annual meeting with his priests, Francis delivered a talk on homiletics, after which he took questions. A couple of his responses raised eyebrows. First the pope announced that the question of married priests "is on my agenda." Asked whether priests who married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, Francis said that the Congregation for Clergy is looking into it, but that "it is a problem that does not have an easy solution." Pope Francis's openness to a married clergy is not in itself big news. Before he was elected pope, he acknowledged that clerical celibacy is matter of tradition, not a doctrine: "It can change." And last May Francis gave a bishop the impression that he was open to changing that tradition. Just a few months ago, the Vatican finally relaxed the rule barring Eastern Rite bishops from ordaining married men who minister outside their native countries. So it's not terribly surprising that he would say the issue is on his agenda.

What did surprise was Pope Francis's comments on the Latin Mass--or, as it was known after Benedict XVI approved its wider use in 2007, the Extraordinary Form. Francis called that decision "a couragous hand to Lefebvrists and traditionalists"--neither of whom seem terribly taken with Benedict's successor. Zenit reports:

The Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a "reform of the reform." Some of them are "saints" and speak "in good faith." But this "is mistaken", the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted "traditionalist" seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because "they presented themselves very well, very devout." They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have "psychological and moral problems."

The so-called reform of the reform was, of course, one of Benedict's signature issues. American reformers of the reform were delighted when Benedict dispensed with the English translation of the Roman Missal and in 2011 forced the U.S. church to accept a new version--one that slavishly adheres to the original Latin--that its priests still haven't warmed to.

Naturally, traditionalists are not pleased with Pope Francis's reported criticism of the "reform of the reform," not that many of them could have been surprised. He's the first pope whose ordination followed Vatican II--and his liturgical preferences show it. These comments only confirm what had been obvious since his election: Pope Francis is not terribly interested in the pet issues of liturgical traditionalists. But what he said about the "psychological and moral problems" of some traditionalist seminarians really struck a nerve.

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Lent and Inconvenient Truths

Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51). While Lenten carbon fasting doesn’t get us to sustainability any more than fasting from food gets us to health, attempts to seriously cut down the key aspects of our carbon use remind us of our preoccupation with comfort. Lower the thermostat a few degrees, and we walk around the house chilly. Forego driving, and the 5-minute trip to the store becomes a 20-minute walk – and you’re cold, too. Give up that Florida getaway vacation, and the winter seems that much longer. But the sum of all these things we take for granted is what adds up to climate change, day after day, year after year. We can’t blame anything (or anyone) else.

In this regard, Bill Patenaude is an important and powerful voice: an environmental regulator by trade, he runs the blog Catholicecology.net, and unfailingly provides serious, in-depth, knowledgeable writing for Catholic environmentalism. He has a wonderful piece on Pope Francis’ Lenten Reflection, a striking intervention in the debate between Robert George and Michael Sean Winters over the forthcoming encyclical, and a powerful piece on the link between pious spiritual practices and the environment. Most recently, he has a lengthy post on “lessons for Lent” that intervenes between Maureen Fiedler – who is impatient for Francis to change teaching on contraception in order for the environmental message to be heard – and Maureen Mullarkey – who in First Things raised the level of hostility toward a sitting Pontiff to a shocking level, accusing Francis of being an “ideologue” and an “egotist.” Patenaude writes:

 This bickering from both perspectives must please our ancient enemy, who relishes it when people don’t see what they share. In this case, the Fiedlers and Mullarkeys of the world do share an urgent call—whether in regards to our duty to protect the planet or to protect people. They both call our attention to the more fundamental duty of sacrificial self-restraint in all areas of our lives. And at all times. 

Patenaude’s piece includes extensive commentary from Fordham’s Christiana Peppard and Charles Camosy, both of whom caution against any hasty connection between overpopulation and climate concern. Patenaude also quotes Tobias Winright: “The immediate problem seems more to do with quality of life (overconsumption that disproportionately harms the environment) rather than quantity of lives, although at some point these may intersect.” Peppard puts it in her typically striking way: “Our population problem is that we are overconsumers…. [F]oisting blame onto other bodies—without gazing hard at how our own consumptive habits create environmental problems like scarcity—can be tantamount to yet another form of neocolonialism.”

One may or may not agree with some of Patenaude’s commitments, but he is worth reading and engaging for three reasons: (1) He’s clearly no free-market libertarian, (love Matt Boudway’s recent piece calling out many conservatives for game-playing in trying to avoid this label) (2) he is not dodging the lifestyle issues associated with genuine environmental commitment, and (3) he is probably working out the position that we are likely to see in Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. This makes his commentary inconvenient, just as Francis is making himself inconvenient to American Catholics across the spectrum. But precisely this sort of commentary is the sort that destabilizes us from our sometimes-self-righteous sense that it is only others who are in need of conversion. What can sacrificial self-restraint look like for us? A good question for the start of Lent.

"Come down from the cross"

In December, I wrote a post here at dotCommonweal about how Pope Francis's leadership is having an impact on the bishops of Spain. The sex abuse scandal in Granada is one of the instances in which Pope Francis's personal initiative has made a difference. The story continues today with an update in the New York Times.

As you may recall, one of the remarkable features of the case was that the Pope himself contacted the victim, identified at the time only by the name of "Daniel," and followed up with him.

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A funny thing happened on the way to canonizing Romero.

Lots of interesting things were said during the Vatican press conference announcing the long-delayed beatification of Oscar Romero, which will take place before the end of the year. Romero was a "martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council," said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of Romero's cause for sainthood. He was murdered because he "followed the evangelical experience, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, of Medellin [and] had chosen to live with the poor to defend them from oppression," Paglia continued.

So why has it taken decades to move Romero's canonization process forward? "Misunderstandings and preconceptions," according to Paglia. While Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, Paglia explained, "kilos of letters against him arrived in Rome. The accusations were simple: He's political; he's a follower of liberation theology." Romero freely admitted it, Paglia said, but clarified: "There are two theologies of liberation: one sees liberation only as material liberation; the other is that of Paul VI. I'm with Paul VI."

That never convinced Romero's "enemies" at the Vatican--including conservative Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who died in 2008. For most of his career, Trujillo's bête noire had been liberation theology, which he identified with Marxism. Fearing that naming Romero a saint would signal the church's approval of a politics that was incompatible with Catholicism, Trujillo led the Latin American bishops who worked to stifle Romero's canonization case under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For years many assumed that both pontiffs shared Trujillo's view of Romero. But at the press conference Pagila said that the one who first "unblocked" Romero's cause was not Francis but Benedict--a confusing claim, because in April 2013, Paglia announced that Francis had unblocked the cause. So which was it? Did Benedict--the man who had warned against some forms of liberation theology--put the process back on track or did Francis? The answer, it turns out, may be both.

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