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dotCommonweal Blog

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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Climate change & 'the afterlife'

There’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker’s recent remembrance of the late author. Schell, who in his book The Fate of the Earth “brought home the sheer reality of what it would mean to explode our atomic arsenals, summoning up not the mainly visceral, personal fear of the duck-and-cover drill but the far deeper horror of a world permanently sterilized and impoverished,” had late in his life come to apply his thinking about nuclear war to climate change. “Both crises,” the article quotes him as saying, “reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in… . I can easily imagine that in six months the whole earth will be blazing with anger at what’s going on. I can imagine that, but I can’t imagine how it will happen.” 

About a week has passed since the release of the latest and correspondingly more dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—things are only getting worse and “no one on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact”—which means about one less week for the world to muster the anger Schell was hopeful about. The media has generally performed well, at least according to Media Matters, which approvingly notes the amount of coverage the report has received from cable outlets like Al Jazeera and MSNBC and even broadcast networks like NBC. CNN largely ignored the report, however, devoting less than two minutes to it, in contrast to the twenty-plus minutes elsewhere; Fox, in giving it more time, also provided “coverage that largely denied the danger of climate change.” (An aside: Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, was arguably at one time a relative environmentalist, using his position as media consultant to the Nixon administration to encourage the president to promise a Kennedy-esque mission to eliminate water and air pollution in America by 1980.) Related articles and analyses continue to appear, including this BBC item on Exxon’s breezy lack of concern over the impact of new climate data on its profits—although even it “does not dispute that global warming is happening.” 

Would that the rest of the world could be so nonchalant.

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What’s up with 59 percent of white Catholics?

A new Pew survey shows “modest decline” in support for the death penalty, with 55 percent of U.S. adults saying they favor it for people convicted of murder and 37 percent opposing, as opposed to 62 percent favoring and 31 percent opposing in 2011, the last time Pew asked the question.

Any drop comes as good news for those opposed to capital punishment, but as usual the drill-downs turn up the interesting information. Take race: Many more whites (63 percent) continue to support the death penalty than do Hispanics (40 percent) or African Americans (36 percent). Or religion-and-race: 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty; for Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, support is 37 and 33 percent, respectively. And white Catholics? Support for capital punishment is higher than the overall number, at 59 percent.

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An April Fools' Day Joke? Paul Ryan Proposes a Budget

More of the same from Paul Ryan

A full repeal of the ACA? Check. Cuts in food assistance? Check. Medicaid cuts? Check again. All these cuts add up in Ryan's mind to economic growth and a balanced budget. It boggles the mind. 

I think I've plumbed the depths of the impoverished libertarian vision; what I find baffling about Ryan's proposal is its purported moral (and even religious) message. It seems like nothing more than a mobilization of the Calvinist distinction between the damned and the Elect. And what a wonderful world in which to be one of the latter. Has conservative Catholicism crossed over to the side of radical puritanism?  

All is well: voting restrictions are really about ‘uniformity’

One of the first things you learn in high-school political science is that high voter turnout tends to favor one party while low turnout favors the other. Back when this was basic enlightening fact was made known to me, there weren’t the early voting, weekend voting, extended polling, or same-day registration-and-vote options as we’ve come to know them– although there were still plenty of fresh tales about the kind of suppression efforts, from the comprehensive to the spontaneous, that had spurred passage of the original Voting Rights Act in 1965 and given Congress in the intervening years ample reason to reauthorize it multiple times. Still, for a class of high-schoolers grappling with the particularities of the most recent reauthorization (this was 1982, for the record), it was generally much easier to view the axiom in meteorological terms: sunny voting days favor Democrats; rainy and snowy ones, Republicans.

Currently unable to dictate the weather, Republicans in swing states are finding ways to make conditions as inclement as possible. “Uniformity” is now the stated objective of their mission, which has gained urgency and speed since last summer’s Supreme Court ruling rolling back the preclearance requirements of the VRA. In places like Ohio and Wisconsin and Texas, making everything uniform basically means making it harder for the people who don’t fit a certain (shall we call it “uniform”?) demographic to cast their votes.

As a justification, it’s probably a less impeachable one than limiting fraud—evidence of which has been scant to nonexistent. It’s harder to argue against efforts to restore an unquantifiable “orderliness” to a process that for some has grown too unruly.

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Can't be too careful

Governor Chris Christie, otherwise known as Governor Bridgegate, personally misspoke (he can't blame Bridget Kelly) at a Republican gathering in Las Vegas, otherwise referred to as the Sheldon Adelson Republican primary. The major potential Republican 2016 candidates were auditioning their ideas to some of the richest men in America, along with the richest, Adelson himself.

Christie referred to the "Occupied Territories," let it be said, in way wholly sympathetic to Israel. But the phrase is forbidden in Adelson land, and Christie quickly apologized for the slip-up--unlike some of the other slip-ups he's made. The territories, i.e., the West Bank, are not occupied because they belong to Israel from time immemorial, or so Adelson insists. Politico

The potential anti-Semitic fall-out from the whole meeting has been thoroughly discussed by J.J. Goldberg at The Jewish Daily Forward under the headline: A GOP Plan to Save the Jews: Buy White House.

Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Juan Cole offers five signs that the West Bank might be said to be occupied:

1. The UN General Assembly partition plan for British Mandate Palestine in 1947, which was extremely generous to the Jewish settlement community of the time, did not award them Gaza or the West Bank, where there were at that time virtually no Jews!

2. Israel militarily conquered Gaza and the West Bank only in 1967. Typically you refer to territories not belonging to a country, which it holds during wartime, as “Occupied Territories”

3. Israel is in violation of over 30 United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding what the UNSC explicitly calls the Occupied Territories....

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Americans and the ‘obnoxiously different’

Writing in the current New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell offers a reliably pat pronouncement in his assessment of the conflict at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, which culminated in the deaths of seventy-four people on April 19, 1993. He says the lesson of “the battle of [Waco]… is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.” He goes on to write that “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing,” and then as supporting evidence provides a tidy, three-sentence recap of the death of Joseph Smith at the hands of an armed mob while awaiting trial in Illinois in 1844.
 
It’s not really the words “obnoxiously different” that are the problem; Gladwell notes the construct comes from historian R. Laurence Moore, who about the Mormons wrote: “[They] said they were different and their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree….” The problem is that the spirit of lazy assertion (“the lesson of Waco is that Americans aren’t good at respecting…” and “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing”) undermines the larger if perhaps equally tossed-off observations Gladwell makes in the piece.
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Justice Kennedy's Logic Puzzle

Everyone knows the power granted by Justice Kennedy’s middle position on the Supreme Court. Indeed Paul Clement, the advocate for the plaintiffs in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, seemed to direct most of his arguments toward the concerns he imagines Kennedy to have about the case.

But even in Clement's most hopeful fantasies, he could not have imagined the gift that Kennedy would present him during questioning of the Solicitor General. Kennedy introduced the idea that, by the logic of the government’s case -- in some future scenario, at the calamitous bottom of a slippery slope -- for-profit corporations could be forced to “pay for abortions.”

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Franck vs. Posner on 'Notre Dame vs. Sebelius'

Matthew J. Franck is not happy with Judge Richard J. Posner. He doesn't like how Posner treated attorney Matthew Kairis during oral arguments at the Seventh Circuit Court last week (which I wrote up here). Kairis represents Notre Dame in its lawsuit challenging the HHS contraception mandate. Franck writes:

In a colloquy with Matthew Kairis...Posner badgered, interrupted, and demanded yes-or-no answers to questions so badly framed that they had to be either evidence of Posner’s failure to grasp the issues in the case, or of his intention to trap counsel in a corner of some kind.

Of course, Posner has never been known for going easy on lawyers. One law blogger said this was Posner "at his cantankerous best." Others weren't so sure. But whatever you make of Posner's approach, Kairis didn't help matters by talking over the judges and failing to answer their questions directly--or without speechifying. "Any law student who has done a moot court argument in school learns that you don’t interrupt the court, talk while the court is talking, or irritate the judge by trying to sidestep a direct question," wrote lawyer and blogger Bill Wilson.

Franck's displeasure isn't limited to Posner's attitude. No, he thinks Posner has missed entirely the point of Notre Dame's complaint. Actually, it's worse than that. Franck believes he's identified "Posner's inability to perceive what's at stake in this case" (my emphasis). But judging from Franck's post, it's not clear that he has a terribly firm grasp of the issues in play.

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What does Notre Dame want?

Last month, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would comply with Obamacare's contraception mandate, after the school's legal challenges failed. "Pursuant to the Affordable Care Act," a university statement explained, "our third-party administrator is required to notify plan participants of coverage provided under its contraceptives payment program." In other words, university employees would receive contraceptive coverage at no cost to them. But the statement warned that “the program may be terminated once the university's lawsuit on religious-liberty grounds...has worked its way through the courts."

That dismayed some of the university's more conservative critics. Notre Dame law professor Gerard V. Bradley, for example, argued that the university's compliance with the mandate amounted to "facilitating abortions." And Notre Dame historian Wilson Miscamble, CSC, worried that the university's heart wasn't really in the fight. But after listening to Notre Dame counsel's oral arguments last week at the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals, they may have something else to worry about.

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Catholic Schools--The Next Casualty of the Culture Wars?

Professor Robert P. George has responded to this post of mine over at Mirror of Justice. 

A couple of points:

1. Professor George  made an authoritative  pronouncement about how a hypothetical Muslim school should decide an internal personnel matter. But making those sorts of pronouncements really does require the extensive knowledge and training of a  mullah—a common term for a Muslim scholar who is an expert in Islamic law and theology, just as making an authoritative pronouncement about an internal personnel matter in a Jewish day school really requires the extensive knowledge and training of a rabbi.  My point was that a Catholic really can't be a mullah—or a rabbi—and shouldn't act as though he or she is. One has to wonder why George would automatically conclude that the term “mullah” is itself an insult.

2. Is there a difference between questioning Professor George and attacking him? But let’s push through the fulminations and focus on the answer to my question. He writes:

If [the teacher] were repentant, then I, as her fellow sinner, would support keeping her on. I’d even host the baby shower. The example being set for the school children in that case would be one of repentance and forgiveness—loving the sinner, even while rejecting the sin. Of course, if her intention is to flout the Church’s teachings, then it’s a different story. That’s what is going on when a teacher, say, moves in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or enters into a civil marriage with a person of his or her own sex—or goes into the strip club business.

So...the baby shower sounds good. (Don’t forget the gift.) But let’s think about this analysis. How would we know she’s repentant? Would she have to publicly repent? (If so, we’re getting a little too close to the Scarlet Letter here for my taste.) How would you communicate to the kids that she had sinned? Wouldn’t that disclose too much information, at least at the elementary-school level?

George writes: “If her intention is to flout...” But "flouting" generally connotes some form of open and public contempt. Can one disagree with a particular communal norm, not follow it in one’s own life, and yet still not be guilty of "flouting" that norm?  Looking at the polling data on these matters, we may have a situation where a) the unmarried woman doesn't think the norm about premarital sex holds in her particular case and relationship, but b) has no intention of publicizing her view in any way at work. But she gets pregnant. She's not flouting the norm—but her body is definitely revealing a violation of it. You might say the baby is flouting the norms!

When it comes to Catholic moral teaching, I just don’t see “moves in with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or enters into a civil marriage with a person of his or her own sex” as comparable with “goes into the strip-club business.”

In the end, I think there are four points to be considered in this controversy.

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From Our Window

Last night at 1:30 AM (that is, early this morning) a New York City garbage truck pulled up to our building. The last several snow storms have left garbage uncollected and buried not only under a mountain of snow but behind the cars encased in snow.

Amazing performance by two sanitation workers. One clambered over the mountain of snow and began throwing the black garbage bags out to the street; the other grabbed them and threw them into the maw of the garbage truck. Bundeled up, the two looked like the Goodyear tire man, stiff and imoblile. Yet they had a rhythm and a grace, yes, even in 14 degree weather, that was impressive. Bravo!!

Survey says.

Last week, Univision released a survey of twelve thousand Catholics in a dozen countries across five continents. The idea occurred to them after the Vatican asked the world's bishops conferences to find out what their people think about a range of social issues and report back. But, as the Univision survey's executive summary notes, "the papal questionnaire is not an opinion-gathering instrument." True, it's not exactly reader-friendly (several dioceses chose to adapt it in order to make it more intelligible to the people whose views it was designed to gather). Nor were its results easy to compile. So Univision sponsored a large-scale survey that would adhere to contemporary standards of data collection, and allow us to say with a measure of confidence: This what the world's Catholics think now.

The results won't shock you. (The German and Swiss bishops certainly weren't surprised.) They represent "an alarming trend for the Vatican," because the "majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives," according to Bendixen and Amandi International--the communications firm that conducted the study. (It's been published a few ways: as an interactive feature, a slideshow, and an executive summary--which explains the survey's methodology.)

The country-by-country breakdown also holds few surprises. Generally speaking, the more developed a country is, the less likely its Catholics are to fully agree with certain church teachings. So, while a significant majority of U.S. Catholics (59 percent) say that women should be ordained priests, 81 percent of Ugandan Catholics disagree (the breakdown is similar on the question of married priests). Of course huge majorities of American Catholics (88 percent) have no problem with the use of artificial contraception. Ninety-four percent of French Catholics support the use of contraceptives--edging out Brazil's 93 percent to take the top spot in that category. And when it comes to divorce, the percentages line up similarly: 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that being divorced and remarried outside the church should not bar one from receiving Communion, while 72 percent of Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo agree with that church teaching. On gay marriage, most Catholics agree with their bishops: about 40 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose it, compared with 99 percent of Catholic Africans.

The abortion results are more interesting.

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UPDATED Melinda Henneberger to speak on Pope and Politics (Fordham)

UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.

In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.

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What are the ethics of watching football?

Of all the things President Obama said in the long New Yorker profile-interview last week, I found it interesting how many people seized on his remark that he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. Syria? The ACA? Obstructionist Congressional Republicans? There were about seventeen-thousand other words to choose from, but with the two-week gap between conference championships and Super Bowl Sunday, maybe people were itching for something, anything, football-related to talk about (surely it wasn’t just another reason to criticize Obama for positing “imaginary” offspring and apologizing for America?).

The president said something similar this time last year, only then it was that he’d have to think “long and hard about it.” Of course, the twelve months between have served up still more stories of players now living with (and dying from) the effects of catastrophic brain injury tied to playing football, and still more data confirming the connection. So maybe it’s understandable that his position has solidified. And yet then came what he called his “caveat emptor,” that current NFL players “know what they’re buying into. It’s no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

Just how responsible are fans and viewers of football for the well-being of the people playing it?

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Time to throw in the towel? UPDATE

East Side Catholic, widely covered on dotCommonweal, made it big today: Front Page treatment by the NYTimes (print edition, January 23, 2013). Top people at the school have bailed. There is concern about future enrollment and current donors (though the story gives no data). The schools contradictory statements and decisions have it in a tangle. The students are in charge. Story here.

Time to close the school down?

Just for fun: the story is by Michael Paulson, once at the Boston Globe where he shut down Cardinal Law.

UPDATE:  Given the direction of the discourse here and other relevant posts, perhaps I should have headlined this post:  THE TOWEL WILL BE THROWN IN   suggesting that the school is unlikely to survive the controversy, having nothing to do with the bishop or the church's teachings, as such, but with the conclusions, economic and political, of the parents of all the students (protestors and non-protestors as well as next year's applicants).

What's on the website now

We've posted a few new items in recent days, including the editors on the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the dismantling of its high-level uranium-enrichment programs:

This diplomatic breakthrough is something to be guardedly hopeful about, not to scorn as hawks in Congress and Israeli leaders are doing. In threading this needle, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have shown both a necessary skepticism about Iran’s intentions and a sober understanding of the costs and limitations of military action....

No one thinks a permanent agreement is a foregone conclusion. President Obama gives it a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Those opposed to the interim deal believe that the mullahs in Tehran cannot be trusted and that regime change is the only way to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. But if one considers negotiations a naïve gambit, one should be even more skeptical of seeking regime change. Iran lost hundreds of thousands of men in its war with Iraq, a catastrophe that cost half a trillion dollars, yet the regime remained resolute. It has already spent perhaps $100 billion on nuclear development, and endured another $100 billion in losses from sanctions. Obviously, Iran is willing to pay a very high price to exercise its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Read it all here.

And, if you haven't done so already, see what E. J. Dionne Jr. has to say about the state of "hope and change" as Obama enters his sixth year in office, and take a look at Marc O. DeGirolami's piece on the language of civil benedictions and new legal challenges to legislative prayer

When the Internet isn’t neutral

“Neutrality” is a principle built into the whole idea of the Internet, an almost creed-like notion set out by the pioneers of the technology and devotedly intoned (sometimes proclaimed) by their legions of descendants worldwide. The idea that the smallest, least-followed blog or smallest local-business website should be available as quickly and easily, to any user, as are Google, Amazon, or CNN seems so basic, so true, to our understanding of how online information can be accessed and shared that it would barely dawn on us to consider it another way.

Which is maybe part of the problem. Anyone surprised by the decision Tuesday of a federal appeals court to strike down the concept of “net neutrality” – and many people are – probably thought little or nothing of the FCC’s decision in 2002 to classify the web as an “information” service and not as a telecommunications service like telephone, thus consigning it to a different regulatory category. Phone companies are obligated to place calls between parties without any roadblocks, and the same free and open flow of communications came to be an accepted characteristic of the Internet. For a while, the spirit of neutrality obtained—even to the point of “Net Neutrality” rules being enacted at the federal level in 2010. But the regulatory distinction between utilities and information services, an important one, was always clear to Internet service providers, which have long sought freedom from government limits on how they can use, and make money from, the networks they've built.

Fact is, the service providers are right, at least on the legal point – something the appeal judges were said to have noted somewhat ruefully in their decision (for this reason, the case doesn’t seem likely to go to the Supreme Court). Had the FCC simply categorized web service as a telephone-like utility back in 2002, people might not be so worried about what they woke up to today.

Which is what, exactly?

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In New Jersey, it's always something

The Chris Christie-Bridgegate story has provided no shortage of entertainment for this New Jersey native. Whenever I'm feeling wistful about my roots I can always look back across the river and be reminded of what I left behind, and why. But stories like this also have a way of spinning out separate ones, not necessarily directly related. So, some nonsmoking-gun items that may be of interest. 
 
The problematic Democratic loyalists: The tangled web of New Jersey politics is teased out at Talking Points Memo, which looks at how favors are traded to play the southern part of the state against the northern and vice versa - and how many of the state's Democrats have actually forged quiet but significant alliances with Christie. While The Sopranos has often been invoked in describing the state's political climate, this report says it's more Game of Thrones.
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Local paper makes headlines: The Bergen Record is winning deserved attention not only for how it broke and is covering Bridgegate, but also for its ability to do so. Transportation reporter John Chichowski was the first to look into the lane closures, and investigative reporter Shawn Boberg got the "smoking gun" emails, but that it even has such resources, according to The Washington Post, can be explained in part by family ownership -- which has ensured stability and helped it avoid the massive layoffs and spending cuts that have weakened so many other papers. And it's not just what it reports that's important, adds Steven Waldman at Washington Monthly, but that it's looking into stories in the first place. Just by digging around, Chichowski got the attention of Port Authority officials who still hadn't looked into the lane closures: "This reminds us that accountability reporting works not only because of what is printed but by giving public officials the sense that someone out there is watching." 
 
Speaking of the Port Authority: Residents and commuters in the New York-New Jersey region might have some sense of how fundamentally dysfunctional the Port Authority is, but the Christie story has shed even more light on the problems with an agency led by political appointees of the governors of the two states sharing oversight. This item being illustrative: Former executive director Guy Tazzolli decades ago bought the naming rights for "World Trade Center" for $10. Until his death in 2013 "he earned millions primarily by licensing the name through the group, the World Trade Centers Association. And the Port Authority is among the hundreds of licensees around the world paying thousands of dollars each year for the privilege of using the words ‘World Trade Center.’” Who broke this story? The Bergen Record
 
Richard Feder lives: Meanwhile, though the paper of record has turned out some good reporting, its real coup may have been confirming the existence and whereabouts of a Mr. Richard Feder, once of Fort Lee, N.J. The other day The New York Times featured on its front page a story about Roseanne Roseannadanna's favorite correspondent, who turns out not to be a fiction but the brother-in-law of an original Saturday Night Live writer who co-created Gilda Radner's famous Weekend Update segment. Feder moved out but eventually returned to the Garden State -- only to become trapped in the traffic at the bridge one of those September mornings.
 
You shouldn't go home again.

New issue, now live

Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:

“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.

Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.

And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal.