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Link Roundup: Pope Francis in the U.S.

Once he arrives in Washington D.C. tomorrow, Pope Francis’s itinerary includes the canonization Mass for Junípero Serra, a White House visit, and his address to Congress. What else is on his schedule? What Twitter hashtag you should use for the visit? Find out here.

In Washington, Francis will step into the political fray. How will his message be received by Republicans and Democrats? From the New York Times:

Even the pope is not immune to America’s divisions. While he has not changed fundamental Catholic doctrines, Francis has stressed the parts focusing on serving the poor and de-emphasized those reproaching abortion and homosexuality — what his biographer John L. Allen calls “his insistence on the primacy of compassion over judgment.”


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Pope Francis & America

Pope Francis’s much-heralded first trip to the United States begins Tuesday, after what some consider a mischievous stop in the Castros’ Cuba. Francis’s distrust of U.S. economic and military hegemony is no secret. His condemnation of the first-world’s “throwaway” consumer culture has plenty of biblical warrant, but may not register with most American Catholics, who are doing quite well, thank you. Nevertheless, it is likely that Francis’s remarkable warmth and candor will succeed in charming his hosts, just as it has won the affection of just about everyone except bureaucrats in the Vatican and an outspoken group of self-styled “orthodox” Catholics who fear this pope is trying to impose a radical agenda on the church.

Francis will be stopping in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. In Washington he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who founded many of California’s missions in the eighteenth century. Like most of the things this Argentinian Jesuit does, Serra’s canonization is controversial. Native American groups accuse the missionary of complicity in the genocide of California Indians. As Gregory Orfalea wrote recently in Commonweal, while denouncing the crimes of colonialism, Francis believes the historical record shows that Serra was a defender, not a persecutor, of the native population. He also wants to direct the church’s attention away from Rome to the “peripheries,” and making his first canonization that of a Hispanic from the American West fits the bill. At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, the pope will then speak to a joint session of Congress. No canonizations are expected to be made there now or in the near future.  

In New York, Francis will address the UN, which is standard fare for popes. No doubt he will call for sheltering refugees and greater peacekeeping efforts from the international community. Much to the annoyance of some, the church has long been an advocate of international institutions. He will also decry climate change and the globalized economy’s impact on the poor, as he did in his recent environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. There will be a visit with the homeless and a Mass at Madison Square Garden. After that it is on to Philadelphia to help close the World Meeting on the Family, a kind of very chaste, very buttoned-upped Catholic Woodstock. Given the conservative bent of the American hierarchy, the meeting’s presentations and workshops are heavily stacked with advocates for the church’s prohibitions against contraception, abortion, civil divorce and remarriage, and same-sex marriage. The meeting’s agenda is no surprise. Philadelphia’s archbishop, Charles Chaput, is among the most dedicated culture warriors. He has confessed perplexity over Francis’s initiatives when it comes to marriage and the family.   

If Francis remains true to form when it comes to Catholicism’s moral teachings, he will make a point of softening the tone with which the church interacts with the larger secular culture and with disaffected Catholics.

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The Pope Is Coming!

Have you heard? This has made George Will go the full ad hominem:

Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.

He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

It's made Will's employer repeat the thinly sourced claim that the Obama administration somehow insulted the Holy See by daring to invite a diverse crowd to the pope's reception at the White House. (David Gibson's sources say that's simply not the case.)

It's made that same paper publish R. R. Reno's purported review of Paul Vallely's updated biography of Francis, which is really a review of the pope, in which the editor of First Things floats the idea that "it's best to think of the Catholic Church as enduring pope Francis," whose "verbal extremism" he finds rather "exhausting."

It's made Anne Barrett Doyle suggest that the Vatican approves of bishops going easy on priests who are credibly accused of child abuse. (Seems rather dubious.)

It's made a U.S. Representative, a Catholic even, decide to boycott Francis's address to Congress, convinced that the pope will not address his preferred concerns. (I don't know anyone who has seen a copy of that text.)

But it's also brought smart commentary from, for example, my friend Bene Cipolla, who writes in today's New York Times about her father, a married Catholic priest.

And of course the pope isn't even here yet. He's in Cuba. Which you can read all about here and here and here (our curtain-raiser, by Tom Quigley). Washington is waiting. New York is Waiting. Philly is waiting. I recommend resting up. Could be exhausting.


Fortress or Field Hospital: The Video

Editor-at-large Mollie Wilson O'Reilly, moderator of the Commonweal panel discussion "Fortress or Field Hospital?" held last Saturday, opened the proceedings with "the bold claim that it has been, I'd say, a good few years for what has been called, sometimes hopefully and sometimes with a sneer, the spirt of Vatican II. And the excitement surrounding the Synod on the Family is proof of that." Things took off from there as David Gibson (national reporter for Religion News Service); Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity and former co-director of Rutgers’s National Marriage Project); Margaret Farley (RSM Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, Yale Divinity School); and Cathleen Kaveny (professor of law and theology, Boston College) weighed in with their thoughts on what to expect, what to hope for, and what the bishops, prelates, and priests should do when they reconvene in October. Earlier this week, contributor Paul Lakeland touched on some of the points that got his attention; read his post, and, if you weren't able to attend or watch the live event, here's the video. 

Triage in the Field Hospital

Saturday's Commonweal event on marriage and the family was thoroughly informative (watch it here). Lots of good thoughts, so much common sense, but what stuck with me the most was David Gibson's question, given that the papal visit to the U.S. was already on the schedule before the election of Pope Francis, would he otherwise have made a trip over here a priority? Interesting to speculate, no way to be sure.

Two interrelated questions have been bugging me since the panel ended. First: if Robert Putnam's analysis in his latest book, Our Kids, so ably channeled by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, is correct, then the troubles with the family in American life are merely epiphenomenal, and to get at the roots of the marital crisis we have to solve the problem of inadequate income among those with less education. It's not a new idea to say that we would have much more social stability if we had an economy supplying jobs that paid a living wage at every level of our social hierarchy. But perhaps it puts questions about communion for the divorced and remarried into perspective. This is a serious issue and it ought to be solved employing the preferred papal virtue of mercy, but it won't do anything for the underlying social issues. And much the same can be said for loosening up the other issues around divorce and annulment and remarriage. Putnam shows pretty clearly that the plight of the poor has more to do with the absence of marriage or laxity about marital commitments than it does with agonizing over remarriage. If the church is truly a field hospital, as Pope Francis has suggested, then it has to practice triage, like any other field hospital. In other words, where are the really critical issues that require the most urgent attention?

My second question is about how the Synod on the Family is going down in the global south. We all know about conservative African bishops who think homosexuality is criminal and who take a dim view of how the church in the north approaches issues of sexuality and marriage. But isn't there just a bit of a danger that we in North America don't see that the priorities we would like to see addressed might come across in less affluent parts of the church as the whining of spoiled brats? If the synod can find its way to more compassionate approaches to divorce and remarriage or can loosen up its rules on receiving communion, how much does this mean for the large parts of the church where marriage is mostly common law marriage or where communion for anyone at all is a rare treat from the occasional visiting priest?

So I wonder if this Synod on the Family isn't in the papal mind an effort to clear away some of the less important issues that are causing unnecessary pain, so that the real issues of global poverty and the many ills that follow can become the real agenda for a church of missionary disciples.

Peter Steinfels on Contraception, in The Washington Post

In case you missed it, Peter Steinfels took to the opinion page of The Washington Post Friday to further the case he made in his recent Commonweal article, “Contraception and Honesty.” From his piece in the Post (in which he also calls Pope Francis “the U.S. church’s best chance of overcoming a bad case of spiritual anemia”):

The church’s unwillingness to grapple with a deep and highly visible gap between official teaching [on contraception] and actual practice undermines Catholic vigor and unity at every level. It encourages Catholics to disregard all manner of other teachings, including those on marriage and abortion. If the church wants to restore its moral authority, it must address this gnawing question.

Sample the reader comments at your discretion. Also, recall that we featured a video interview with Peter on this topic a couple of months ago. Watch below.

Annulments & Assessments

Much papal news in and outside of the mainstream media today, much stemming from Francis’s announcement on annulments, more assessing his strategies and successes on curial reform, and some on his call over the weekend for Catholics in Europe to extend the welcome to migrants and refugees.

On annulments: Emma Green at The Atlantic says the new policy is the first tremor signaling the big shakeups to come, while David Gibson, writing at NCR, takes a closer look at the streamlining of procedures and questions what effect the changes will have in the United States, “where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.” And at Crux, Inés San Martín goes a little bit deeper into the details. Now might also be a good time to view (or review) our Commonweal Reading List on the state of Catholic marriage, updated to reflect new developments.

At The New Yorker, Alexander Stille assesses Francis’s chances of making changes to the Curia, given how for “the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited.” “I got a glimpse of how difficult that might be,” Stilles writes

when I attended a gathering of high-level Vatican officials in Rome earlier this year and overheard a cardinal talking about how L’Espresso, an Italian news magazine, would soon be publishing a damaging exposé of the free-spending ways of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian whom Francis brought in to clean up the Vatican’s finances. The article was based on leaked documents, and the cardinal was clearly pleased with its imminent publication. “When Francis came in, the attitude was that everything that the Italians did was bad and corrupt—now it is a little more complicated,” he said. He felt that it was important to settle accounts with those he viewed as “pseudo-reformers.”

Paul Vallely, at New York Magazine, writes on what he sees as the pope’s “wily political strategy,” one built on alliance-building, openness to confrontation, and planning: “The pope’s friends describe him as a ‘chess player’ whose ‘every step has been thought out.’”

The Washington Post reports that Hungary’s Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo is not on board with Francis’s call this weekend for Europe’s Catholics to open their churches, monasteries, and homes as sanctuaries for those seeking refuge. “They’re not refugees,” Rigo said, quoted in the Post. “This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.” The Vatican itself is taking in two refugee families, now giving it the ability, according to The Guardian, to respond to Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League, “who in a radio interview once sarcastically asked how many migrants were living in Vatican City.”

Francis: Doctrine Can't Be Separated from Pastoral Context

Riveting headline, I know. And yet, four weeks away from the start of the Synod on the Family (now expanded to three weeks instead of last year's two—more time for Synod truthers to spin elaborate conspiracy theories about the proceedings), the remarks Pope Francis delivered to the International Theological Congress on Thursday appear to set the table for the debate. I could summarize, but you're better off just reading what the pope said. (I can't find the text online, so I'm going drop in long excerpts from the Vatican Information Service bulletin.)

First, on the question of the local church's relationship with the universal (the issue behind the ridicuous attempt to smear Cardinal Walter Kasper as some kind of crypto-racist), the pope said:

There exists no isolated particular church that can be said to be the owner and sole interpreter of the reality and the work of the Spirit. No community has a monopoly over interpretation or inculturation just as, on the other hand, there is no universal Church that turns away from, ignores or neglects the local situation.
And this leads us to assume that it is not the same to be a Christian…in India, in Canada, or in Rome. Therefore, one of the main tasks of the theologian is to discern and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian today, in the "here and now." How does that original source manage to irrigate these lands today, and to make itself visible and liveable?… To meet this challenge, we must overcome two possible temptations: first, condemning everything: …assuming "everything was better in the past," seeking refuge in conservatism or fundamentalism, or conversely, consecrating everything, disavowing everything that does not have a "new flavor," relativising all the wisdom accumulated in our rich ecclesial heritage. The path to overcoming these temptations lies in reflection, discernment, and taking both the ecclesiastical tradition and current reality very seriously, placing them in dialogue with one another.

Next, Francis discussed the relationship between doctrine and pastoral practice (another major question to be taken up by the Synod fathers):

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What a Great Country!

The jailing of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis over her refusal to follow the law and issue same-sex marriage licenses, and the furor it has caused, is being called many things. Some call it martyrdom for religious liberty, and some a hate crime against gays. Others say it's a tempest in a teapot.

I see the whole affair as an affirmation of the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

First we have the Supreme Court ruling that gays have an equal right to marry, this despite the fact that a significant minority of Americans have contrary religious beliefs. Score a victory for no national religion.

Next we have Ms. Davis, who believes God forbids gays to marry. Because issuing marriage licenses to gays offends her religious beliefs, she doesn't have to do it. Accommodations have been made; deputy clerks can do it instead. Score a victory for religious freedom.

What a great country! Ms. Davis can even keep her job, which technically requires issuing marriage licenses to anyone legally entitled to marry.

Alas, Ms. Davis has refused to promise she won't interfere with deputy clerks who follow the law, instead choosing to go to jail. While she takes full advantage of one clause of the First Amendment, she would abolish another.

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Data Day

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s already a big Catholic news week. Pew Research released a new poll setting the table for the pope’s spin through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia later this month. Francis announced that for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which will begin in December, he will allow all priests to absolve those who confess procuring abortions—and that priests of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X can hear confessions too. And today word came that Francis met with a liberal French bishop who had been exiled by John Paul II. Let’s start with the sexiest item: data (I’ll get to the other stuff later).

You’ve probably already seen the headlines: “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families” (at least that’s how Pew itself titled the report). Shock. Awe. Fainting couch. But look deeper into the study, and several interesting findings emerge. First, in addition to the fact that most American Catholics don’t agree with Catholic teaching on a range of issues, Pew Research asked a series of questions that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever asked before: How connected to Catholicism are you? Turns out that 45 percent of all Americans either identify as Catholic or are connected to Catholicism—20 percent say they’re Catholic. Is the 20 percent figure news? Not really. But first, let’s have a look at those values findings.

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Poll: Pope Francis and Former Catholics

A new poll released in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States offers data that suggest the pontiff will have the ear of many Catholics who have left the church or otherwise become discouraged with its leadership.  

The poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service presents an interesting profile of those who identify as former Catholics, a group that it says comprises 15 percent of the U.S. population. It finds a gender gap, for example: former Catholics tend to be male (55 percent) while current Catholics are more likely female (56 percent). The former Catholics are more likely to identify as liberal (37 percent) than current Catholics (27 percent) or as political independents (50 percent, former Catholics; 36 percent, current Catholics).

Former Catholics are reported to have a much more positive view of Pope Francis (64 percent approve) than of the church (43 percent). Similar gaps can be found among young people and liberals.

Catholics are much more likely to say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics (80 percent) than to say the U.S. Catholic bishops do (60 percent).

While some conservative Catholics have objected to Francis's priorities,  the poll suggests that overall, American Catholics have a more favorable feeling toward their church than they did before Francis became pope. (56 percent said their feelings had changed, and of those 3 out of 5 said their feelings toward the church had become more favorable.)


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Can Hope Combat Despair (and Denial) on Climate Change?

With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.

“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.

For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.

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Bringing Bernie Back Home

The other day, as I was heading home to my apartment in Washington Heights—a small, somewhat close-knit neighborhood, geographically isolated from the tourism and crowds generally associated with Manhattan—I encountered a young man and woman with clipboards, gently trying to intercept passersby. "Hey," the man made eye contact, "have you heard about Bernie Sanders?" "Yeah,” I said, giving a thumbs-up and walking on, proud I'd been able to answer them in the affirmative. But they both lunged toward me, and started speaking very quickly. "Awesome! Are you registered? Do you know about our group? Are you interested in participating in our events? Do you want to volunteer?"

Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders currently doesn't have a New York City campaign office because, as I was to learn in the course of my encounter, he "didn't think people would like him this much." And so groups like the one I ended up learning about that day—Washington Heights for Bernie Sanders (they call themselves Bernie WaHi)—are getting ready for when he sets one up.

"We realized that the campaign didn’t have the structure yet in New York or as much funding as some other candidates,” said Adam Masser, one of three Sanders organizers who facilitate events and volunteer assignments in Northern Manhattan. Masser and his friends saw a "real opportunity to get the word out on behalf of Bernie and start organizing." So they started inviting their friends, and then their neighbors, to mobilize fellow Bernie supporters while also cultivating new ones.

Still a problem for Bernie at the moment is name recognition: “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t register with the same immediacy that “Hillary Clinton” does. So Bernie WaHi will focus on that, while also hosting more events and recruiting more volunteers. Voter registration is also part of the plan: Supporters are seeking to sign up people who’ve never voted, and to get registered Independent and Green Party voters to register as Democrats before the October 9 deadline.

Bernie WaHi takes its name from Washington Heights, but it covers a wider geographic area that includes Northern Manhattan, Harlem, Inwood, and the South Bronx—all bordering neighborhoods. At a citywide organizing meeting with twenty other organizing leaders, Adam and others agreed to work together and make sure every voting district is covered.

I asked him if they had official word Sanders was opening an office or if this was all "just hope." "Definitely not just hope. But,” Masser admitted, “there hasn't been any official word." Sanders has offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and in his home state of Vermont. Whether or not an office is ever opened in Manhattan, there will “definitely be campaign events,” Masser said, and he will definitely have a body of volunteers mobilized.

A sentiment I have heard repeated is “I don’t really like Hillary, but Bernie is…” Too old, too left, too radical, too something. And then I hear, “I would love to see him as president, but I don’t have too much hope it will happen.” But the more I meet people like Masser and his fellow Sanders supporters, the less I accept that.

Sanders is in an “upward trajectory,” Masser pointed out. His main message—that this country belongs to all of us, not just the billionaire class—resonates with a lot of people. He is the only candidate who doesn’t have a super PAC—something not lost on those most turned off by the state of presidential politicking.

But Sanders would probably be the first to admit he needs all the help he can get, where he can get it. Could the grassroots efforts in his hometown provide another boost?

Popes in the City

Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)   

Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter. 

Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.

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Chautauqua: a paragraph, perhaps a half-page, in my high school US History textbook; or Robert Pirsig’s term to characterize his self-communing in Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And then there is The Chautauqua Institution of 2015, a gated village of 750 acres, host to thousands of people – some true Chautauquans  - for a nine week summer program organized around weekly themes. History at Chautauqua is structural, certainly architectural: to enter the gates is to go back to the past, visually and communally. On brief inspection, one concludes that the average age of the participants stretches back more than two generations. This is a “senior world” (I include myself.), although there is no lack of families with children.

Well over a hundred years ago, Chautauqua began as a summer retreat for Sunday School teachers. It has transformed itself and its lake shore over the years. The major Christian denominations still have their residence houses, but one could almost be unaware of the thoroughly religious foundations of Chautauqua. There is, of course, morning worship services in the amphitheater, and the Department of Religion sponsors the major afternoon lectures,  an Inter-Faith program. No one at Chautauqua balks at religious sentiments; and the politics are left of center, socially progressive. As for ecumenism: there are regular Catholic services and a Jewish center, offering a wide range of religious and cultural programs.

The entry way to Chautauqua looks something like the toll both approach to a turnpike: busy, crowded with cars, and confusing: We were part of a tour and had to claim our entry passes amid a crush of people at the ticket office, but once we found ourselves inside the fenced acres, we drove hesitantly down very narrow, tree shaded streets, passing wood frame houses, Victorian in look and, in some cases, in origin. The road sloped down to the shore of the lake, to the grand Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian wooden hostelry that recalls Dickens’  depictions of hotels in Martin Chezzulewit. The density of the housing, the lushness of the gardens that encroach on to the streets, and contrasts of shade and light on the frame houses work a transformation, as does the omphalos – the Amphitheater – spreading its bowl-like shape to focus on a stage platform, roofed above but open at its sides to the winds.

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Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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Coming Home by Teaching the Beatitudes according to Lúcás Chan

After two weeks of teaching a bioethics course in Pune in the second half of June, I began July in Bangalore where I taught a very intensive two week course for 26 licentiate and doctoral students meeting 4 hours a day.

The course was “Biblical Ethics” and it was to be team taught by Lúcás Chan and me. Though I team taught courses frequently with Dan Harrington and with Roger Haight, this would be my first time team teaching with a former doctoral student. We agreed to meet in Bangalore on July 1 a little more than two weeks before Chan would be chairing the first ever Pan Asian conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists. We had each written two books in this fairly new field that Chan pioneered. Unfortunately, as many of you know, Chan died of a heart attack on May 19th.

In this light, I decided I should only teach his work. I thought, if I taught both his and mine, more students would naturally ask me about mine. Besides they probably would have been more deferential to my work, though Chan’s you will see is the more significant.

The decision was a good one.

Unlike anyone before him, Chan established normative criteria for doing biblical ethics. In Doing Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions, he insisted that writing biblical ethics required exegetical competency as well as a competency in ethics, particularly in proposing a method for applying the exegetical insights to ordinary moral life. Additionally Chan argued that virtue ethics was a most worthy method for making that application.

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Moral Voices from The East

On Monday afternoon we finished, here in Bangalore, our first ever Pan-Asian Conference of Theological Ethicists: “Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.”  There were 95 ethicists, among whom were 14 plenary speakers and another 36 presenting paper during concurrent sessions.

One of the finest plenary sessions, “Doing Interfaith Ethics in Asia” involved three speakers from countries where Catholics are very much a minority. Delivering a flawless paper, “A God by any other name,” Sharon Bong covered the trajectory of lawsuits filed by the Catholic church in Malaysia against its government’s decision to permit only Muslims to use the word “Allah” in referencing God. For twenty centuries, Malay-speaking Christian Malaysians have used “Allah” as their word for God, easily predating the Muslim use of the word. In 2008, the Catholic press was banned from using the word, or else it would forfeit licensing. With a final court decision ultimately upholding the government ban, Bong entertained whether forgiveness or resistance marks the proper ethical response.

Haruko Okano from Japan proposed an argument on how feminist Catholic writings on “moral responsibility” could help contemporary Japanese ethics. Explaining how much a shaming culture inhibits any autonomous accountability, Okano considered how often a Japanese apology is a face-saving action that has little to do with assuming personal or social moral culpability. When asked what was the meaning of the Japanese apology for World War II, she answered that it was a way of simply saying, let bygones be bygones, a reply that left the audience speechless.

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Sr. Mary Scullion Writes on the Firing of Margie Winters

dotCommonweal reader Jack Marth and members of the Waldron Mercy Academy parent community have highlighted a column in support of the school’s former religious instruction director Margie Winters, whose dismissal I wrote about last week. One of the co-authors of the piece is Mary Scullion—a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., an organization devoted to ending homelessness in Philadelphia. Scullion is well known both inside and outside the city, having received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2011 and being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Joan McCannon—co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., fellow recipient of a Laetare Medal, and parent of a Waldron graduate—also lent her byline, as did philanthropist James J. Maguire, president of the Maguire Foundation. Scullion’s input on the firing comes as a welcome development to the parents I’ve been in touch with, many of whom had been hoping for her to comment.

From the column, which appeared yesterday on

The recent controversy at Waldron Mercy Academy brings to light that we are at a critical moment for the Catholic Church, and for all persons of faith and conscience in this country. It is a moment rife with pain and struggle, but also hope. ...

[W]e believe that the Church’s truest integrity is at risk when it emphasizes orthodoxy and doctrine without meaningful engagement with human and historic realities. We love the Church: We draw deeply from its rich traditions of spirituality, compassion, service, and justice. But we also recognize (and need to take responsibility for) our many historic blind spots—persecution of heretics, oppression of indigenous peoples in the name of “mission,” and second-class status for women.

While it is painful for us to have to publicly dissent, we are convinced that this is a moment when insistence on doctrinal adherence is clashing with what we believe the Spirit is unfolding in our history—just as it has in the past, with issues like slavery, the rights of women, and the environment. Many Christian denominations have listened to the movement of the Spirit and moved toward both full inclusion and full embrace of the gifts of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.

The Church is at its best when it listens to the Spirit speaking in our times and through human experiences. As we listen, we hear the Spirit speaking through the testimony of hundreds of parents and former students, who affirm that Margie has been a marvelous teacher and influence. She has been a gift to the Church, nurturing the faith and morals of countless young people, fostering a spirit of mercy, compassion, and justice.We believe the controversy surrounding Margie Winters is the Spirit inviting us to reflect on Church doctrine that upholds the dignity of every person. ...

As we work through the pain and conflict, as we listen to each other, as we struggle to make sense of the power of tradition and the challenge of newness, we believe this can be a moment of hope and grace.

July 17, Bangalore: The Opening of the First Ever Pan Asian Conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists

Later today we open, here at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a conference with a lot of intentionality, Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.

Last night, as a group of us were returning from dinner, we walked into a young Filipina ethicist, Anthonette Mendoza, who flew 12 hours from her university, Louvain, to get here.  Another, Kristin Heyer, one of the leaders of our Planning Committee, had just flown from California to Dallas to Boston to Frankfurt to Bangalore to get here.  As we were returning to the university Guest house where 45 of the 90 guests are staying, we ran into Vimal Tirimanna who had just flown in from Sri Lanka and Bernhard Kieser from Indonesia.

This conference is the brain child of Lúcás Chan, the Jesuit ethicist from Hong Kong who met Shaji George Kochuthara the Indian Carmelite ethicist at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, three years ago.  The two began planning immediately.  They recruited Agnes Brazal from the Philippines, Sharon Bong from Malaysia, and Robert Gascoigne from Australia.  With them they developed a network of consultation and collaboration.

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