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Nature Notes, June 12, 2015

June 12, 2015: Fireflies out and about. I thought this would be the earliest date ever, but I see May 30, 2011 wins the early bird award. Of course, I wasn't here in nature on May 30 this year so.... The fireflies are not yet as profuse as they were in 2014, but will certainly increase as we approach July 4, when they put on their great firework show.

In the meantime mountain laurel are bursting blossoms (looks like a wedding bower). Everything green is profuse: ferns, raspberry bushes, violets, (even the irises flowered this year), alium look great, lady's mantel, blood root, verbena, chives, oregano and who knows what else.

The Fordham Tick Index is at 8 (out of 10). I have been attacked by only one so far. It had not yet bitten, so I spared it (Will Francis have anything to say about unloved creatures like ticks, mosquitos, and chiggers. We'll see next week.).

I speculate that a very cold and long winter followed by a wet June has produced the abundant green world, though it seems that may have delayed planting on the farm at the bottom of the hill. Late corn!

2014 Report, June 27.     2012 Report, June 22.      2011 Report May 30.

Kalief Browder's Stolen Life

As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two. 

Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.

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New issue, new stories

Featured right now on the website, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., as well as our June 12 issue, just posted today.

In writing on the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, E.J. discusses "The Two Santa Claus Theory" put forth by supply-siders in the 1970s and says that Sanders may be tapping into something:

The senator from Vermont has little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: Government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans...

Read all of "The New St. Nick" here.

And, among the highlights from our new issue is Robert Gascoigne writing on the affinities between Christians and the "secularists" who "share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life."

[The] significant commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights.

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

And, Rand Richards Cooper pens a Last Word on the troubling ubiquity of smartphones and the baffling "universal desire to be connected everywhere and all the time":

[T]hat’s America these days: people everywhere with their heads bent, fingertips flicking at their screens. Couples in restaurants, silently flicking. A schoolbus full of teenagers, heads bent as if in prayer.... But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?

Read all of "Flick, Flick" here, and see the full table of contents for the June 12 issue here.

Same-Sex Marriage 'Reality Check'

Many who are responding to the 62.4% majority vote to nationally legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland are making much of Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin's frank but vague remarks in the New York Times:

The church needs to take a reality check.... It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.... [I]nside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society…

That there is a growing gap between young people and the church on this issue is not new news, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. Martin is right to point out that anyone who doesn't recognize this is in "severe denial." That's why I think this referendum is such good news. It's a reality check, yes, but it's also an opportunity to let go of the fight against same-sex marriage. If bemoaning the referendum becomes the church's basis for strengthening "its commitment to evangelization," as the Vatican's secretary of state suggests, the gap between young people and the church will only widen.

I don’t have the polling data to prove this, but I can't imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.

Is there a way for Catholics to simply disagree with same-sex marriage supporters instead of having to “defend traditional marriage”? Is there a widespread movement to force the church to change its teaching on marriage? Why can’t traditional marriage exist inside the church, with same-sex marriage outside the church? Agreeing to disagree relieves the opposing parties of the burden of needing to win. Ireland has decided, by majority vote, to legalize same-sex marriage. At least one front in this protracted culture war has gone quiet. What a relief.

Over at NCR Michael Sean Winters wonders if it’s possible that “those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education, but, in part, because of it?” That’s a very good question. I suspect they did. Catholics have imagination. Tradition isn’t a force that eternally battles advancing armies. It’s the way the substance (not the accidents) of church teaching is passed down through generations of believers who contribute to this process by reexamining and reexamining again what their faith means.

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

Student debt comes home

The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion, four times the amount it was in 2004. For the Millennial generation who stepped into the job market mid-recession, these sobering numbers probably aren't surprising.

Last year, a branch of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt, bought and forgave almost four million in student loans held by students from Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profit college chains, which recently closed its doors without warning and filed for bankruptcy. The company was under scrutiny for over-charging students for poor-quality classes and misrepresenting its job placement rate, and by shutting down, it left many students without degrees but deeper in dept. Now that Corinthian’s unethical practices have been laid bare, Tuesday’s petition asking the Department of Education to cancel debt owed to colleges violating state law is one good step, but the legal case is complicated.

Proposals for addressing the crisis of student debt range from the relatively modest (easing the requirements for debt forgiveness in cases of fraud found in Obama’s proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights), to the sweeping, as Bernie Sanders’s proposal to address the root cause of student debt by making college tuition-free. Regardless, some kind of action is needed.

The more burdensome a college graduate’s debt obligation, the more difficult it is to establish a path toward economic security – building savings, for example, or buying a house – and to enter stabilizing relationships or start a family. Student debt also affects the well-being of the previous generation, as parents rally to help their children, sometimes by tapping into their home’s equity or retirement savings. And, when the time comes, who are they supposed to sell their homes to when an entire generation of graduates is too constrained by debt to buy? There are also new numbers on how rising tuition and student debt disproportionately hurts minorities. Hollis Phelps in Commonweal last year addressed this very topic: “In a cruel twist, the very means undertaken by my students to get themselves out of poverty threaten to continue that poverty through the debt that they now owe.” What might have once seemed like a young-person’s problem (and perhaps a privileged young-person’s problem) is now more widely felt.

We should understand the student debt crisis alongside the seriously weakened prospects for job growth that early Millennials faced upon graduation. As the first Millennial wave graduated, job definitions were changing as industries shifted and automation spread, and thanks to the recession, even the jobs that were supposed to be there as entrees to the middle-class were gone, or greatly diminished. Companies relied increasingly on contract labor to defray costs, including adjunct positions at universities (which didn’t help the students who went to graduate school hoping to ride out the economic downturn). All this meant that the “foot in the door” college was expected to provide meant something very different than it used to. If you could get an entry-level position, advancement in the same workplace over a long period of time was no longer a solid prospect. And as many discovered, an unpaid internship began to increasingly qualify you for… a different internship—a point that has even made its way into Hillary Clinton’s speeches (though apparently her foundation's policies don't necessarily reflect that concern).

Despite the occasional accusation of generational flightiness, which ignores these economic factors, Millennials say they want to make the same things happen as their parents did: a home, a stable partnership, and enough stability to raise kids. Policy changes will have to span the sprawling and slow-moving institutions of federal government, banks, and universities. But changes are slowly coming. In some states, companies that relied on unpaid internships to fill staff roles face greater restrictions. The complaints from Occupy Wall Street’s corridors about debt once sounded less urgent and pressing to the mainstream. Millennials faced a lack of institutional support to build a solid foundation, and now the problem is coming home.

Abusing immigrants, something for everyone

We had a go around last week about nail salons (and I have been chided for treating it as another NYTimes hand-wringer). Okay. Sorry to scandalize the sensitive!

I pointed out in a comment on that post that our Immigration Law Imbroglio has a lot to do with the nail scandal as well as many other ongoing industrial/commercial abuses, such as restaurants, gas stations, street repairs, etc. Thanks to Republicans our laws have not been updated; thanks to Obama the laws, such as we have, are not being enforced; thanks to the economy of low-wage jobs, ever more immigrants will come by hook or crook and be abused, many of them by their own countrymen/women and by our failure to enforce the laws that should protect them as well as our very own low-wage workers.

Jim Dwyer (no hand-wringer) has a short piece not only about workers beings abused everywhere in NYC, but about the general failure of city and state to enforce the laws that should be protecting these workers, legal or not.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

Catch E.J. Dionne and Barack Obama

Online at the Georgetown Catholic-Evangelical Conference on Poverty....

There's a tab at the upper left of the screen to watch the whole discussion, which begins at about five minutes. Catch it.

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

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Bagels, doughnuts, and scones

If Mike Huckabee violated campaign finance laws, would anyone take note? And who would do anything about it?

The answer to the first question is yes: As reported in The Washington Post, the Campaign Legal Center has called out Huckabee on the first day of his presidential candidacy for a remark he made during his announcement speech: “I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people who will find out that $15- and $25-a-month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground… . Now, rest assured [he said to laughter], if you want to give a million dollars, please do it.” According to the center, that’s a violation, joke or not, since candidates for federal office can solicit amounts no larger than $5,000. And if he was suggesting that people direct their donations to a Super PAC, that would also have been a violation: Super PACs are independent of candidates, and fundraising for them must stop once a potential candidate becomes an announced one. Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Martin O’Malley are two presumed presidential candidates whose Super PACs continue to raise money while they linger on the sidelines, which is precisely (some say) why they continue to linger on the sidelines.

A million here, a million there—once it might have soon begun to add up. Yet with the Koch brothers pledging to funnel close to $900 million into the 2016 election (having already amassed $250 million at an event earlier this year), notions of what constitutes “real money” might need to be reconsidered. Huckabee’s modest request could cause him some trouble, assuming there was a bipartisan body set up to monitor and enforce such things. If you said that’s what the Federal Election Commission was for, you wouldn’t be incorrect, but you’d be overstating its ability to do so, and maybe even its interest in doing so. As reported this past weekend, the FEC is effectively neutered, its three Republican and three Democratic members in a “perpetual deadlock.” The FEC chairwoman bluntly states that the likelihood of enforcing campaign finance regulations in the 2016 presidential election is “slim” – this when about $10 billion in total spending is expected, an amount loosed in large part via the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Democrats on the commission want more oversight on just where the money is coming from; Republicans say there's nothing to see here. Where members did manage to compromise was on what would be served to eat at a recent event commemorating the FEC’s fortieth anniversary: one side wanted bagels, the other doughnuts, so they settled on both.

It’s campaign season in the United Kingdom as well, where rules are somewhat more stringent: No party can spend more than about $30 million in the year ahead of the election. In the last cycle, the Conservatives spent $25 million and Labour less than half that. The Center for Responsive Politics says American presidential candidates spent about as much money on raising money in 2012 as the two main British parties spent on their entire campaigns in 2010. There is no TV or radio advertising in British elections (though spending on digital ads is rising). Even then, parties and candidates tend to have money left over. Maybe enough for scones? 

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Thank you, Freddie Gray

CNS photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, Reuters

Thank you, Freddie Gray.

You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.

Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.

Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.

And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.

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More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Hebdo & PEN, the Archbishop & the Quran

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz said this week he will stop inking images of the prophet Muhammad, explaining that it no longer interests him: “I got tired of it, just like I got tired of drawing Sarkozy.” His announcement comes as France also follows the case of Sarah K., the fifteen-year-old student sent home for wearing a long skirt her principal deemed an “ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith – an action the Collective Against Islamophobia in France called “really an excessive interpretation” of the 2004 law prohibiting students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school.

Meanwhile, the public spat among authors continues ahead of next week’s PEN gala in New York, where Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award “for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.” Six writers scheduled as table hosts announced over the weekend they would not attend the event, including Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center. About two dozen more writers (including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz) have since added their names as signatories to a public letter of protest over the award: “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression,” reads the letter, “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.” Prose and the five others who first withdrew have come under fire from, among others, Salman Rushdie -- who has called them “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (He used some other choice words too.) To which Prose has responded:

Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? … [We] stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence. … But the giving of an award suggests that one admires and respects the value of the work being honored, responses quite difficult to summon for the work of Charlie Hebdo. Provocation is simply not the same as heroism.

There’s a more irenic exchange going on at John Carroll University, as can be heard in a segment from today’s NPR Morning Edition on retired archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam currently teaching a class on the Quran.

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New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the homepage.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.

Transcending polarization

What can be done about polarization in the American Catholic Church? A conference next week at the University of Notre Dame aims to address the causes of polarization and advance ideas for healing some its wounds.

Monday night’s opening panel will be live-streamed here, with contributions from Most Rev. Daniel Flores (Bishop of Brownsville), Rev. John Jenkins, CSC (President, Notre Dame), Prof. Julie Hanlon Rubio (theology, St. Louis Univ.), Prof. Christian Smith (sociology, Notre Dame), and Michael Sean Winters (journalist for The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter).

This will be followed by Tuesday sessions and working groups. I’ll be part of a group proposing constructive actions that can be taken to heal divisions in the church. In preparing for that, I’ve been working through some of the causes of political polarization in the United States, to see which of these might have explanatory power for polarization in the church.

Political scientists agree that the United States has become increasingly polarized over the past forty years. Analyzing the possible causes has become a hot topic for peer-reviewed scholarship, op-ed pages, and blogs. (Some recent round-ups of scholarship can be found here and here.)  Was polarization catalyzed by Roe v. Wade? Or Bush v. Gore? Or the partisan onslaught of 24-hour cable news? In any case, it’s hard to remember the map before it showed red and blue states.

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Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

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Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

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