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Statement from the Cardinal Newman Society regarding the situation at Mount St. Mary's University

Following on my earlier post, this afternoon the Cardinal Newman Society issued a statement expressing concerns about the current situation at Mount St. Mary's University, especially the direction it has taken under the direction of President Simon Newman. The full statement is here. Here are some paragraphs relevant to the matters I discussed:

President Newman has attracted nationwide criticism of his now acknowledged proposal to weed out young students based on a presumed likelihood that they would not perform well academically. It is the position of The Cardinal Newman Society that any plan to weed out matriculated students without first providing substantial assistance and demonstrating a sincere commitment to the students’ personal formation and well-being would be contrary to a university’s Catholic identity. Student formation in mind, body and soul is the essence of faithful Catholic education, and at a Catholic university, no financial concern or desire for secular prestige should supplant the University’s core purposes. We hope that the reaction to this plan has convinced the leadership to find other ways to improve its retention statistics, including genuine efforts to support and retain admitted students.

Of even greater concern to The Cardinal Newman Society, President Newman has fired several University leaders and professors, some of whom have been key to the Mount’s greatly strengthened Catholic identity over the past decade. The University says they violated ethical obligations, including a requirement to be loyal to the institution. The faculty adviser to the student newspaper, which revealed President Newman’s proposal to dismiss students, was also fired. We may never know the details of such private employment decisions, and we respect the authority of a university president to hire employees who best serve the university’s mission. Nevertheless, the loss of leaders and professors who seemed to best exemplify and promote the Mount’s Catholic mission is disturbing and does real harm to the University. 

We were delighted to learn today that President Newman has reinstated two of those employees who were fired, including the student newspaper adviser and a philosophy professor who raised concerns about Catholic identity, although the latter professor has reportedly declined unless President Newman resigns. We hope that resolutions can be found for those who were fired, and if not, then we will be looking for a similar commitment and witness from those who are selected to replace them.

Finally, we are deeply concerned by multiple but yet unsubstantiated claims that President Newman has expressed a desire to diminish the celebration of Catholic identity in the Mount’s marketing materials because he believes that Catholic identity is ineffective in recruiting students. That is a debatable presumption; much of Catholic higher education is struggling after decades of secularization, while the newest Catholic colleges in the United States are vibrantly Catholic and have no fears about marketing that fact. A university that is fully committed to its Catholic mission will not hide it. Instead, it will strive to convince others that its Catholic identity is reason for celebration and the very heart of the best sort of education, which it certainly is.

- See more at: http://www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/CatholicEducationDaily/DetailsPage/...

What Do We Care About When We Care About Catholic Identity?

From 2010-2013 I taught at Mount St. Mary's University, now the center of a massive controversy prompted by the actions of its new president, Simon Newman, an MBA-possessing former businessman who, since taking over his current position, has:

  • Abruptly cut off a retirement benefit that had been promised for years to the university's long-time faculty and -- more importantly -- hourly staff;
  • Made dismissive statements about the value of liberal study, and pushed the university to cut back its liberal arts requirements;
  • Abruptly dismissed from his administrative position Joshua Hochschild, then dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a well-respected professor who had sought to strengthen liberal study and Catholic identity at the Mount, and had corrected the president's rhetoric and resisted some of his calls for change;
  • Encouraged faculty to think of struggling students as animals who needed to be executed, rather than human persons who needed their help;
  • Created a plan to dismiss 20-25 freshmen -- about 5% of a typical entering class at the Mount -- in order to improve the university's self-reported retention statistics;
  • Devised to this end a survey in which students would describe the extent to which e.g. they felt depressed, unliked, and financially unstable during the early weeks of the semester, intending to pitch this survey to students as a tool for self-understanding but then use it to identify those unlikely to succeed, accepting as "collateral damage" those it might mistakenly sweep up;
  • Dismissed from his administrative position David Rehm, then provost of the university, who challenged the president's judgment;
  • Fired Edward Egan, an untenured professor and advisor to the Mount's student newspaper, apparently for his role in helping that paper break the story of Newman's "retention" efforts; and
  • Fired Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor, for what was described as a violation of his "duty of loyalty" to Mount St. Mary's.

I am told that Newman has also halted publication by the student newspaper that broke many of these stories and forcefully defended its coverage of them in response to criticism by the administration and board of trustees.

There is more, but this is enough to make my point.

In a sane world, the above would be evidence that the president at Mount St. Mary's, and the board of trustees that enables him (note that this board includes numerous priests and bishops, many of whom have been contacted repeatedly about these matters), are working actively to undermine the Catholic mission of an institution that has been praised by the Cardinal Newman Society for its "earnest commitment to authentic Catholic teaching and students’ personal development."

In such a world, the fact that the Mount is bound by the teachings that "charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1789), and that in the context of the Catholic university "the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, II.2.iv), would be enough for the Cardinal Newman Society to withdraw this endorsement.

In our world? Well, in our world we get this:

The Cardinal Newman Society, which encourages Catholic colleges to stay close to church teachings, has long been a fan of Mount St. Mary's, and includes it among the institutions it recommends. Many critics of Mount St. Mary's have said that its recent actions are inconsistent with the church's teachings on how people should be treated. The Cardinal Newman Society frequently issues news releases criticizing Catholic colleges for inviting to campus speakers who favor abortion rights or allowing student groups to stage The Vagina Monologues. A spokesman said that the society is doing one of its periodic reviews on which colleges it recommends, but that it would have no comment on Mount St. Mary's.

Our Nation Stands On Ashes

I had planned a simple, short post to call your attention to the Ignatian Solidarity Network and its new group blog, Lift Every Voice: A Lenten Journey toward Racial Justice.  Prof. M. Shawn Copeland is the one contributor I know and in my experience, anything she writes is worth reading. [The initial post is already up, and it's a lovely, powerful and direct meditation by Kaya Oakes.  Sample: "We burned this country into existence, forged it from fire, nourished it with blood. Our nation stands on ashes."]

At least, that was my plan before Princeton University Prof. Imani Perry was pulled over, arrested, patted down, and handcuffed to a table, apparently because of a three-year old parking ticket.  Memories came flooding back when reading her Facebook post and her tweets about the incident—memories of Perry as a soft-spoken, luminescently intelligent teenager, with a deeply rooted, broadly inclusive empathy for others.  The closing words of her statement are characteristic of her humility, sense of perspective and well-banked fire for justice:

I must admit I am somewhat ashamed that my story will get more attention than those of others who have experienced things far worse that merit our response. But I hope against hope that the attention my story has received, and the fact that many people will give me the benefit of the doubt because of my profession, my small build, my attachment to elite universities, and because prominent people will vouch for my integrity and responsibility, can be converted into something more important. I hope that this circle of attention will be part of a deeper reckoning with how and why police officers behave the way they do, especially towards those of us whose flesh is dark.

Living as we do, in this time and place, there's no Lenten repentance that is complete without a conscious, active and repeated turning away from America's original sin of racism.

Lenten Reflections 2016

Through the Lenten season, Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, a longtime Commonweal contributor, will be providing excerpts of his translations of the writing of St. Augustine. A new reflection will appear every day, at the Lenten Reflections 2016 page. You can get to the page from anywhere on our site; just look for the Lenten Reflections 2016 link in our blue Trending Topics bar at the top of this or any page. And make sure to come back each day, now through Easter, for a new reflection.

My Minivan Is My.....?

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life.  Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass.  “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.  

The answers to that question are complex and manifold.  A small share of an answer may be linked to how many of our parishes and dioceses chose to celebrate the Year itself.  For the most part, it was seen as an opportunity to say a much deserved word of thanks to men and women religious for their service and their lives of witness.  Those words, while sincere, often had the tone of an elegy, an acknowledgment that many religious communities may have reached the point of irreversible decline.

What I generally did not hear from the pulpit or the episcopal chair was any sustained argument aimed at the Catholic laity for why religious life--a life dedicated to the “perfection of charity” through the practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience--remains integral to Christian witness in the modern world.   This way of life, rooted in the example of Jesus himself, has been part of the Church from the very beginning.  To use an overworked metaphor, a Church without communities committed to the practice of the counsels is a Church breathing with only one lung.

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Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill: Diplomatic 'Controversies,' Ecumenical Concerns

The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.

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In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

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Mother Church & Her Battered Daughters

Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”

Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.

The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”

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Asymmetric Culture War in the Church of Francis

There’s a rift in the Catholic Church in Italy between “Pope Francis Catholics” and those who favor a more muscular response when “non-negotiable values” (an expression Francis never uses) are at stake. The split is particularly visible at the moment because Italy is close to joining other European countries and the West with a law on same-sex unions. It won’t happen without protest.

On January 30, an organization of lay groups (including the Neocatecumenal Way) will hold a rally in Rome to protest the Italian parliament’s consideration of the law. The rally is not the initiative of the Italian bishops, but it has their “external” support, if in an ambiguous way. The president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (appointed president of the conference by Benedict XVI in 2007, likely to be replaced in 2017) strongly voiced his backing, while the powerful secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino (appointed by Francis in March 2014 and now the most visible spokesperson for Francis among the Italian bishops) emphasized that the Catholic laity have the right to organize the rally but did not come out strongly in favor of it. Most Italian bishops support the rally; those who do not are very cautious in establishing distance between themselves and the Bagnasco camp.

The rally is called “Family Day,” and it’s modeled on the 2007 event held by Italian Catholics who turned out in huge numbers to support the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian bishops in their protest against a proposal by the center-left Romano Prodi to legalize same-sex civil unions (as distinct from gay marriage). Family Day 2007 marked the height of the clash between the political theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on one side, and the political tradition of Catholic progressivism in Italy on the other. Since then, Catholic progressivism in Italian politics has all but disappeared (though not only because of Family Day).

This is relevant for the whole church because Francis has taken a different position than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

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Washing Feet: Now All the People of God Are Invited

I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."

Until now the rubrics for the Mandatum -- the foot-washing ritual, which takes place after the Gospel and homily at Mass on Holy Thursday -- specified that the people whose feet were washed were "men." And that's not the English "men" that sometimes (in a totally not sexist way, as many a mansplainer will tell you) is supposed to mean "men and women"; it's the Latin "men" that means "males." Many bishops, priests, and parishes had been including women anyway, not least, as you are probably well aware, Pope Francis himself. But those who preferred an all-male lineup had the letter of the law on their side. No more: the revised text approved by Francis refers not to the "men" whose feet are washed, but to “those chosen from among the People of God.”

I've seen three basic reactions to this news in my travels online. The first is my own: Hooray! It's about time! The second: Wait, you mean washing women's feet was against the rules before? And the third, well:

Some people are displeased.

I've long argued that if you really believe that the church's refusal to consider ordaining women to the priesthood is a matter of being bound by Tradition, and definitely not just long-entrenched sexism, then you should welcome any opportunity to involve women in the life of the church. An announcement like this, like the inclusion of both females and males as altar servers, should be good news to everyone. But it doesn't always seem to work that way, in part because those most committed to preserving and defending the all-male priesthood are often those least likely to celebrate any elevation of the "people of God." If you see altar servers mainly as priests-in-training and foot-washing mainly as part of Jesus's Last Supper ordination ceremony, then those things should be limited to men, too, to protect the privileges of the priesthood. But the Mandatum isn't only or chiefly about ordination; it's about Jesus's commandment to his disciples -- and thus to all of us -- to love one another as He loved us, and to express that love in humble service. It makes no more sense to exclude women from that rite than it does to exclude them from the Communion line (when Jesus commanded, "Do this in memory of me," did he mean only men?). Pope Francis's letter explains that he changed the rite “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Last Supper, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity” ("la sua carità senza confini").

So, yes, it's overdue. And yes, it is a big deal, at least if you're a practicing Catholic who thinks how we celebrate the Eucharist is important.

"But it's still just a suggestion, right?" is another reaction I've seen in a few places. "The priest doesn't HAVE to include women."

One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women. (Instead, there is this from the pope: " I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen." An opportunity for catechesis!) And there is no language carefully preserving the priest's right to go on excluding women if he so chooses. Sure, it's technically still possible, as far as I can tell, for a priest to decide that in the case of his community a group of men alone is most appropriate. He could also now opt for only women, at least as I read the rubrics. But let's remember that the liturgy is the work of the people of God -- to use a phrase Pope Francis is bringing back into vogue -- and not a performance put on by the priest for an audience of laypeople. Your parish priest could decide to ignore Francis's desire that the Holy Thursday Mass more fully express the limitless love of Christ. But why would he? And why, now that the stickler-for-the-rules excuse has been removed, would the people of God put up with it?

The Road to Rome, by Way of Macedonia

Referring to the Vatican, English Catholic apologist Rev. Ronald Knox reputedly offered this caution: “Better not look too closely into the engine room.” In other words, best to behold the majestic barque of Peter from some distance, rather than exposing oneself to how the leaky vessel actually operates, for that way lies disillusionment and the road to apostasy. Sound advice, it would seem, and I’ve followed it religiously for nearly sixty-five years, visiting Italy twice but somehow managing to avoid Rome. (Like every literary wannabe, I’m a fool for Venice.)

That came to an end in December, thanks to an invitation to a conference on the persecution of Christians held at the Pontifical Urban University just outside the Vatican. I hope to write more on that important topic in the future. But first an initial report on some encounters during my travels.

At the very start, a certain missionary zeal marked my pilgrimage, though I personally could not lay claim to any such enthusiasm. Standing in line at JFK to board our Alitalia flight, I couldn’t help but notice an especially clean-cut young man in the line next to me. He was very carefully put together, wearing a sweater and neatly knotted tie under a smart-looking gray sports coat. His slacks were dark and his shoes polished; his jaw square and his brow unfurrowed. Pinned to his sports coat was a plastic badge, the sort a doctor might wear. I was intrigued, but could not make out the writing. The mystery was soon solved. Unprompted, the young man began a conversation with an older gentleman, an Italian, in front of him in line. “This is my first trip abroad,” the young man said in a clear voice. “I’m eighteen years old. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to Macedonia.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, since Macedonia had been in the news for having closed its borders to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Was the kid serious, or merely oblivious? It seemed unlikely that he had relatives in Macedonia.

“Excuse me sir,” the young man continued, the Italian gentleman now somewhat perplexed. “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? You know, the Mormons? I’m from Utah, and I’m going to Macedonia as a missionary. Would you like to know more about my church?”

The old man, as well as others within earshot, smiled with benevolent amusement, but none took up the young man on his offer. I assume that when boarding a jet for a four-thousand-mile trip over a vast ocean, one’s most atavistic religious instincts take hold. I certainly reach for my rosary. Do young Mormons immediately start honing their missionary pitch? Still, I was fascinated and even impressed with the teenager’s forthrightness. He seemed guileless, as eager to get down to business as St. Paul was to convert the uncircumcised. At eighteen I was barely able to tie my own shoes.

I was also humbled. About the last thing I imagine myself doing is offering a brief for the glories of Roman Catholic Church to a perfect stranger.

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The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.

In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”

Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.

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Religious Freedom for Me, but for You... UPDATE

The execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has set the already fraught ME into a greater uproar if that is possible. The Sheikh may have been a thorn in the side of the Sauds, but his activities hardly seemed to have required execution! even in Saudi Arabia. So you have to ask: Was this a provocation against Iran? We might further ask: if the possibility of an agreement on Syria led Saudia Arabia to stir the pot?

The execution led to the burning of the Saudi embassy in Teheran. Though the Iranian government has critiized the attack and arrested those responsible, Saudia Arabia has cut diplomtaic ties with Iran and been joined by Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan. Here is Amy Goodman at Democracy Now with some of the details and an interview with a man who knew the sheikh and his work. Bruce Reidel  at al Monitor  speculates that the execution of the sheikh and 46 others reflects Saudi concerns about the kingdom's stability. Robin Wright at the New Yorker traces the history of animosity between Iran and Saudia Arabia.

The U.S. imprudently allied with Saudia Arabia in its war in Yemen may find itself further entangled. Condemning the execution of a religious leader might go some way in clarifying exactly how far we think freedom of religion ought to extend and the limits we ask and expect of our nearest and dearest allies.  UPDATE: David Sanger (NYT) explains it all (sort of). More: Does the Administration favor Iran in this fight?  Bloomberg.  HT: Jim Pauwels. Another possible explanation: "A Trap for Washington" at LobLog.  These various analyses are not necessarily in conflict; they do show how complex the situation is and how uncertain the consequences of the Saudi actions.  MORE II, most comprehensive as of 1/5: Charlie Rose: With Phillip Gordon, Vali Nassar, Wendy Sherman, and David Sanger.

What You Read at Commonweal in 2015

An essay from a nun seeking forgiveness from a former student, a series of pieces on seminary training and sexual formation, and an in-depth critical examination of William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: these were some of the stories you helped make the most read on the Commonweal website in 2015. Below, the complete list of our ten most read stories of the year.

Inside the Seminary (Paul Blaschko)

Pope Francis: Married Priests ‘On My Agenda,’ ‘Reform of the Reform,’ Not So Much (Grant Gallicho)

The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism: A Review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (Jackson Lears)

Clerical Errors: How We’re Training Our Priests? A Three-Part Feature (Paul Blaschko, Barbara Parsons, and Mary Gautier)

Lenten Reflections 2015 (Joseph A. Komonchak)

Contraception & Honesty (Peter Steinfels)

Twin Cities Archdiocese Charged with Child Endangerment (Grant Gallicho)

Any Liberals for Religious Freedom? (Peter Steinfels)

Late Confession: A Nun Remembers Her Most Troubled Student (Francine Dempsey)

The Enduring George Weigel Problem (Anthony Annett)

Trump, Berlusconi & the Church

The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.

But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.

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In Hoc Anno Domini

Every Christmas Eve since 1949 the Wall Street Journal has been publishing the same editorial.  (The Journal doesn’t publish on December 25, the stock exchange being closed.)  Obviously the editors must be pretty proud of it.  It’s also one of my favorites.  From year to year the words are the same but the meaning changes with the times.  In the last few years its message has been clear: Jesus came to save us from government regulation. 

That was probably not the major point at the moment of intensifying Cold War when the editorial first appeared.  The dangerous allure of Friedrich Hayek’s “road to serfdom” was merely implied.  But the Journal readers of 1949, who would have spontaneously understood Caesar to be operating out of the Kremlin, have been replaced by the readers of 2015, daily instructed that today’s Caesar operates from the White House and the federal bureaucracies.  

Entitled “In Hoc Anno Domini,” the editorial describes the world at the moment of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion: a world “in bondage,” with but one state and one master, his oppressive power maintained through legions and executioners, persecution of free thought, and enslavement of nations.  “Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

Having begun with Saul, the editorial ends with Paul:  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty where with Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” 

There are a number of historical and scriptural oddities about “In Hoc Anno Domini.” 

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Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

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Where Bishops and Theologians Still Talk

I had the opportunity to deliver one of the keynote lectures at the Vatican II conference at the Katholische Akademie in Munich this month, and to respond to the lecture given by Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Bishop of Mainz and former chairman of the Conference of German Bishops) on the legacy and the future of Vatican II. Most of the roughly two hundred people in attendance were German or German-speaking, though there were scholars from other European countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, and the United States (including James F. Keenan of Boston College and Brad Hinze of Fordham). Several generations of scholars were represented, many inspired by or having studied under the Tübingen systematician Peter Hünermann, founder in 1989 of the European Society for Catholic Theology (full disclosure: I studied with him in Tübingen between 1999 and 2000). There were also students of his students, along with systematicians, historians, ethicists, and canon lawyers. And it was evident that Vatican II remains at the center of Catholic theology in Germany.

The final document is representative of the sensus concilli. In five pages and twelve bulleted points it makes a case for the renewed role of Vatican II in Catholic theology and the church of today: freedom of religion globally and freedom of theology as Wissenschaft (systematic research); a new relationship between theology and the magisterium; reform of church structures; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; the church and Judaism; liturgy and inculturation; the church and the public square; and the environment.

But it wasn’t just the final statement that made the conference interesting.

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"What I've Learned Here Is What I've Always Known": A Letter Home from the Andes

(With the author's permission, here's a letter received at our parish this Gaudete Sunday.  I like to think it's not solely because of parental pride that I'm passing it along...but I can't be sure. 

A couple of notes by way of orientation:  1) "God is good...all them time....And all the time...God is good" is almost as familiar a call-and-response prayer of greeting in the Black church across the US as "The Lord be with you...and with your spirit" is for Catholics. 2) "Sr. Mary" ran the afterschool program and summer camp at our parish for 33 years and mentored a generation of young people in and around Roxbury. 3) Newly arrived in Boston and walking home from Mass one Sunday in the fall of 1988 my wife said, "This feels like a parish that could be a good place to settle in and raise a family."  As is so often true, she was right.)

Dear Parish Family,

God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. When we see each other, we rejoice.

God is good here in the mountain town of Andahuaylillas, Peru.

God is good at Fe y Alegría 44, the Jesuit-run school I teach religion at. I see His goodness reflected in the faces of my 400 elementary school students as they sing songs like “Padre Abraham” (shout out to Summer Camp for giving me a fun song to translate and teach), as they draw their image of heaven, as they pray for their classmates' ill family members. I feel God being good when the teachers help me with the difficult students, and when the student who I had pegged as the worst behaved student at the school proved Sr. Mary right that there are no bad children, and by the end of the year was the most helpful student in his classroom.

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Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

It's four years now since our parish (and the rest of the English-speaking Church) started using the new translations at Sunday Mass. For the most part—whether people greeted the new language with enthusiasm or dismay—we've settled in. Even the parishioners who show up only on Christmas and Easter are used to it by now.

Happily, we're still exploring the vast treasure house of riches that is the new Lead Me Guide Me hymnal (which came out at the same time). Nearly twice the size of the 1987 edition, Lead Me Guide Me is, as a former pastor liked to say, "unashamedly Black, unapologetically Christian, and specifically Catholic."

We're especially benefiting from the work of contemporary African-American composers like Kenneth Louis. Take, for example, his Advent hymn, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." It adds a depth and richness to the congregation's meditation on the meaning of Advent and the Lord's coming that's not found in some other settings of Isaiah 40.

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