In April, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia where he called for a more pastoral approach in dealing with Catholic couples who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment of their Catholic marriage. He suggests that each case be considered on its own merits. He did not make any changes to Catholic doctrine in this document, so what he meant by "pastoral" was, as usual, interpreted by each in their own way.
In July, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, who is considered very conservative, responded by saying:
Catholics in Philadelphia who are divorced and civilly remarried will be welcome to accept Holy Communion – as long as they abstain from sex and live out their relationships like “brother and sister”.
I found this to be a remarkably liberal statement coming from him. But I also found it disturbing. Is he saying that adultery begins with sexual relations? Or is he using sexual relations as a convenient and unambiguous dividing line? Will sexual relations become the new standard of adultery?
I present to you a story of a failed Catholic marriage.Read more
Toward an Ethics of Participation and Hope in Latin America: Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Convenes in Bogotá
We just wrapped up a four-day conference here in Bogotá, Colombia brilliantly organized and realized by the indomitable Maria Teresa (MT) Davila from Andover Newton Theological School and Director of the Latin American Region of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC).
After CTEWC’s second international congress in Trento in 2010 where 600 Catholic theological ethicists converged from 72 countries, the Planning Committee of CTEWC decided to fortify the network by hosting regional conferences. In 2012, the Nigerian Agbonghianmeghe Orobator, SJ, chaired the first Pan African Congress in Nairobi. In 2013, the North American Regional Committee decided to engage their colleagues through a working group (2014-2016) at the annual meetings of the Catholic Theological Society of America. In 2014, Roman Globokar (Slovenia) and Konrad Glombik (Poland) held the European Congress in Krakow. In 2015, the late Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, SJ, (Hong Kong) and Shaji George Kochuthara, CMI (India) organized the Pan Asian Conference in Bangalore.
Here in Bogotá, Davila worked with two professors from the spectacularly hospitable and beautiful Javeriana University, María Isabel Gil Espinosa and Alberto Munera, SJ. Together they invited roughly one hundred Catholic ethicists from more than twenty countries. While the shared identity of Latin American theologians provided the background, the organizers brought to the foreground the differences from each part of the continent by inviting nine distinctive national voices to speak. Despite some similarities, the challenges and hopes in contemporary Brazil are considerably different from those in Chile, Colombia, or Cuba. No where was the difference heard more than when Luis Jesús Paz Acosta from El Salvador spoke about the urgent struggles with gangs, while Javier Menocal acknowledged the absence of such phenomenon in Nicaragua.
Differences across Latin America were remarkable.
The conference sponsored 12 plenary papers and more than 60 other concurrent presentations on such themes as gender, sexuality, human trafficking, de-colonization, immigration, Laudato Si’ and sustainability, Amoris Laetitia and the family, poverty, unemployment, drug use, aesthetics, and the primacy of conscience. Besides Paz’s riveting paper on gangs, high points included María Verónica Anguita Mackay (Chile) on bioethics and how (poorly) mass media communicates on such urgent contemporary issues, Miguel Sanchez on corruption in Mexico, and María Isabel Gil Espinosa, who works at an AIDS clinic here in the capital and closed the conference with a passionate and critical summons for a more inclusive, closer-to-the-ground attention to human suffering across the continent.
Major senior moralists like Munera were there including: Marcio Fabri dos Anjos, CSsR (Brazil), Theresa Lowe Ching, RSM, (Jamaica), Luis Ugalde, SJ and Pedro Trigo, SJ (Venezuela). But newer scholars were even more evident. Besides Luz and Gil Espinosa, Alexandre Martins (Brazil), Jutta Battenberg (Mexico), Hilda Ortiz Mena Fernández (Mexico), and Claudia Montes de Oca Ayala (Bolivia) each prophetically urged us toward greater dialogue, fearless solidarity, and critical attention to the most marginalized.
Bishop Jorge Lonzano who heads the Social Pastoral Commission of the Argentinian Bishop’s Conference presided at Saturday evening’s Eucharist and earlier presented a very significant paper on communication and social change.
MT Davila who headed the Latin American Region for the past six years has decided to step down as director so as to become the first director of our social media communications. Emilce Cuda (Argentina) and Elio Gasda, SJ (Brazil) succeed her. Their first task is to publish the plenary papers along with 15 selected concurrent papers with the Javeriana University Press’ on-line publications. After that they will lead the Latin American region in preparation for our third international congress to be held in Sarajevo in July 2018. More on that later.
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not a fascist; he is a semi-fascist. I recognize the risk of using the f-word. In fact, I am positively allergic to it. This case, however, is different. The U.S. is at a moral crossroads. We need to be utterly unambiguous about why.
I emphasize the “semi” in semi-fascist. Trump has shown no interest in the stereotypically fascist exaltation of discipline, not for himself and not for any organized movement. The closest his militants get to uniforms are baseball caps. And though he may have toyed with the occasional outbreaks of violence at Trump rallies, those scuffles are absolutely nothing like the systematic thuggery of budding fascisms.
On the other hand, consider this: He has built a political movement on a populist nationalism that scapegoats enemy groups both within and without. He will expel or bar alien intruders. He plays relentlessly on a sense of national humiliation, victimization, grievance, and decline. He asserts that the nation faces an emergency that justifies torture and murdering the wives and children of our terrorist enemies, even briefly suggesting that as Commander in Chief he could order the military to violate the laws of war. Unlike full-fledged fascists, he is not explicitly anti-parliamentarian, an idea perhaps too complex for him (or perhaps too multisyllabic); instead he scorns virtually the entire political class as “stupid” or “without a clue,” i.e., unable to make a deal. He takes no note of Congressional procedures and Constitutional limits. He is indifferent to civil liberties except for gun rights, and has spoken ominously about reining in the press. When asked about compromise, he replies by vaunting his own “flexibility,” as though compromise were nothing more than a personal skill rather than an appreciation for distinctive outlooks and interests. If none of that rings an alarm bell, you haven’t read enough about Europe in the 1920s and ’30s.
Still, why not just call Trump an authoritarian or a demagogue, which would be bad enough? Why not “Caesarist” or caudillo? Liar, bully, opportunist, vulgarian, purveyor of toxic politics—won’t that language suffice? I don’t think so.Read more
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The legacy of this event is still controversial. I recently spoke with Professor Yiju Huang of Fordham University on the politics of memory in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. She is the author of Tapestry of Light: Aesthetic Afterlives of the Cultural Revolution, which examines the literature and art produced in the wake of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of Freudian trauma theory.
Nicholas Haggerty: What’s the standard view of the Cultural Revolution in China?
Yiju Huang: In China, the Cultural Revolution is understood as a decade of chaos, but also there was a hasty attempt to bring a sense of closure. Although Mao’s image was tarnished, his legacy is also salvaged—‘he was misguided by the scapegoat figures of the ‘Gang of Four,’ but now that the dust has settled, we can move forward.’
From my perspective, however, there still linger a number of ghosts. The crimes that were committed in the utopian name of the greater good have not been properly worked through.Read more
Amid the many remembrances of Daniel Berrigan, I want to highlight a biography of him and his brother Philip that was reviewed in Commonweal by David O'Brien in 1997. The review itself paints a fuller picture of the "life and times" in which the Berrigan brothers were shaped, and describes the significance of how they went on to shape the lives and times of many others—particularly American Catholics.
We get a glimpse of the Berrigans' family life in upstate New York. They grew up in the Depression with a father who "brooded over his failures," whose "anger overwhelmed the love of their mother, and who made leaving home easier." Yet "Dado" left copies of the Catholic Worker around the house and helped set up a Catholic Interracial Council in Syracuse, exposing his sons to Catholic social teaching. The brothers began creating discomfort "amid the conformist self-congratulations of fifties' Catholicism":
It began as fairly modest efforts to awaken the lay apostolate and challenge the church's own racism, then to respond to Pope John XXIII and the council, then to confront their country's bloody war in Vietnam.
By then, O'Brien summarizes, a Catholic peace movement was capturing national attention, and it seemed the church at all levels began to face the problems that had long troubled them. "But it was never enough," O'Brien writes, "less because [the Berrigans] were radicals, which they were, than that the nation's capacity for violence, and self-deception, was far greater than anyone suspected."
The biographers make clear the difficulties Daniel and Philip each faced as priests and laity: "Both loved being part of the church, and were hurt that some Catholics seemed more angry at them than at the warmakers."
On nuclear weapons, "the most important issue of their time," O'Brien concludes:
[T]hey faced the truth while far too many spent their talents seeking ways to justify the unjustifiable. The gifted moderates now seem convinced that they helped 'our' side 'win' the cold war, while the Berrigans still prefer, in Dan's words, 'to be as marginal as possible to madness.' It is possible that only on those margins, with people like these that alternatives to madness can be imagined, a necessary step to the much desired renewal of our country and our church.
You can read the full review here.
In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan. This interview may now be of interest to those curious about how Berrigan and his companions understood their actions at the time.
Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?
Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.
HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?
EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself becomes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.
HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.
EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.Read more
Can a Catholic university legitimately take money from the likes of the Koch Brothers? This is not a hypothetical question. Many Catholic universities are implicated. But none more so than Catholic University of America, which—in the face of much criticism—has just doubled down with another $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation.
The original partnership with the Kochs, and the subsequent criticism, predates Pope Francis and Laudato si’. If the university’s arguments were weak back then, they are paper-thin now.
Just consider how the philosophy and business practices of the Koch Brothers goes directly against the authoritative teaching of Pope Francis. I will make three points in this regard.
First, the Kochs are avid libertarians, defenders of the unconstrained free market as the best route to prosperity. This ideology is simply not compatible with Catholic social teaching. In full continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis condemns the notion of a “deified market” or a “magical conception of the market.” His point is that an economic system underpinned by self-interest and oriented toward profit maximization is simply incapable of delivering integral and sustainable development. It leads instead to an economy of exclusion, and is deaf to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Pope Francis stresses that working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is a moral obligation—and for Christians, a commandment. “It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right,” he says. In other words, the universal destination of goods is a reality prior to private property. I have a feeling the Kochs would strenuously disagree with this. And this is no mere prudential disagreement. It is foundational and anthropological.
Second, the Kochs are among the leading funders and promoters of climate-change denialism. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis castigates those who are focused on “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.” “There are too many special interests,” he says, “and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” It almost seems like the pope is addressing the Kochs directly! Today, the stakes are especially high after the signing of the Paris Agreement by 196 nations last December. This agreement, which aims to phase out carbon emissions, was a major priority of Pope Francis. It explains the timing of the encyclical’s release, and Laudato si’ served as a moral charter for the agreement. But, almost alone in the world, the Paris agreement is being opposed by key U.S. political interests—because they are beholden to those very same vested interests condemned by Pope Francis.
Third, the business activities of the Kochs cannot be deemed ethical. In terms of assessing ethics in business, the best starting point is "The Vocation of the Business Leader," put out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document is currently being updated to encompass the wisdom of Laudato si’. And Pope Francis makes a compelling point about business ethics that bears repeating in this context. He notes that businesses profit from not paying the true costs of their activities. “Only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” he says, “can those actions be considered ethical.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the business model of the Koch Brothers is simply unethical, period.Read more
There’s a legal distinction between “speech” and “hate speech”—with the latter recognizing that words can indeed have consequences, whether uttered in ordinary public gatherings or during heated political campaigns. Language that encourages violence targeted at specific groups of people crosses a line. Correlation may not be causation, but it’s interesting to look at some of the comments Donald Trump has made on the stump and the incidents that have followed those remarks.
In June 2015 when Trump kicked off his candidacy for president he said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
In August 2015, two brothers on their way home from a baseball game beat and urinated on a homeless fifty-eight-year-old Mexican immigrant who was sleeping outside a Boston T station. After they were arrested, one said, “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.”
On November 22, 2015, Trump claimed that on 9/11 “thousands and thousands of people in Jersey City were cheering” when the towers of the World Trade Center came down. In Twin Falls, Idaho on December 7, 2015, the Islamic Center of Twin Falls was vandalized with the words “Hunt Camp,” the nickname of an internment camp in Idaho for Japanese-Americans during World War II. That same day: Twenty-five year old Matthew William Gust threw a Molotov cocktail into a Somali-owned coffee house in Grand Forks, North Dakota, causing $90,000 in damages; a caretaker at the Al Aqsa Islamic Society in northern Philadelphia found a severed pig’s head on the center’s doorstep; and a shopkeeper in Queens, New York, said he was attacked and beaten by a customer who said, “I’ll kill Muslims.” On December 8, officials at a mosque in Jersey City reported receiving a letter, citing Trump’s comments about Jersey City celebrations, calling Muslims “evil” and telling them to “go back to the desert.” That same day in Seattle a sixteen-year-old Somali-born boy was severely beaten, thrown from a sixth-story window, and died; his family claims his attackers were from Seattle Central College. On December 11, in Coachella, California, a mosque was firebombed while people were inside. At one of Trump’s rallies on December 14, a supporter onstage told a story about his child’s death at the hands of an undocumented immigrant. A Black Lives Matter protester interrupted, shouting “That’s why we need gun control!” As he was being removed from the audience, another supported yelled for someone to “light the motherf***er on fire.”
On March 5, 2016, a mother received a call from her son’s third-grade teacher to say he was taunted by two of his classmates who pointed out the “immigrants” in the classroom and "who would be sent 'home' when Trump becomes president." On March 10 in North Carolina, after being charged with assault for punching a protester in the mouth as he exited the rally, Trump supporter John McGraw said “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him." Video shows that after McGraw punched the protester, the police then threw the protester on the ground and surrounded him while McGraw returned to his seat. Trump was charged with but not convicted of inciting a riot. And on March 14, a Muslim student from Wichita State University reported that he and his friend (who is Hispanic) were attacked by a motorcyclist at a gas station who yelled “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “Make America great again! You guys are the losers! You guys, we’ll throw you over the wall!” (There is a surveillance tape.)
The candidate is currently stumping in New York, and on Thursday April 14 he has controversial plans to speak at a Suffolk County GOP fundraising event in Patchogue, New York, blocks from where in 2008 a gang of teenagers who frequently hunted and assaulted Latino immigrants murdered an Ecuadoran man named Marcelo Lucero. From there he will head to Manhattan and attend the New York State Republican Gala as a special guest. Protesters plan to be on hand.
Americans should be mindful of the right of candidates to speak. But does what seems like a cause-and-effect pattern over many months make understandable the actions of those who find incitements to violence and prejudicial rule something not only worth standing up to, but necessary to stand up to—especially when lives are being put at stake?
I just came across an article in the Harvard Magazine on Harvard University's involvement in, even leadership of, the eugenics movement at the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. A teaser:
But in part because of its overall prominence and influence on society, and in part because of its sheer enthusiasm, Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university. Harvard has, with some justification, been called the “brain trust” of twentieth-century eugenics, but the role it played is little remembered or remarked upon today. It is understandable that the University is not eager to recall its part in that tragically misguided intellectual movement—but it is a chapter too important to be forgotten.
Did Pope Francis’s unrehearsed comments on the morality of using contraception in the context of the Zika virus constitute a change in church teaching? I leave to others the fine arts of papal exegesis and applying the principle of double effect and lesser evil. For anyone a little less papal centric, what the recent Synod on the Family had to say—or, better, not say—about contraception may be as noteworthy.
The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch. Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur. He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another. He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy.
And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.
My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that. He respects it. He admires its author. He looks for the truth in it. But he doesn’t buy it.
But that’s pure guess on my part. The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.Read more
Imagine you’re a woman in your late twenties with a job at a multinational software company. You play soccer as a hobby and come home after a game one night to find you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment. It’s around 11:15 by the time the locksmith has let you in, and you’re taking off your shoes when you hear a voice and a barking dog near your front porch. You go to the window, pull back the blinds, and see a man pointing a gun at you. You step back from the window and hear the man say, “Come outside with your hands up!” What do you do next?
Correctly assuming it was the police who ordered her outside, Fay Wells of Santa Monica, California, obeyed. Writing in the Washington Post about the September 6 incident, Wells describes how officers commanded her down from her porch at gunpoint without answering her repeatedly asked question: “What’s going on?” Only after they searched her apartment did officers explain why they were there. But none of them could give Wells, who is African American, a satisfactory explanation as to why there were nineteen of them, and they assured her it had nothing to do with race. “The fact is,” she later told NPR’s Ari Shapiro “the first time that they interacted with me, they had guns drawn, which just felt incredibly aggressive and not like they were trying to assess the situation.”
Shortly after Wells's piece appeared in the Post, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released a statement on the incident, affirming the claims Wells made—yes, the department sent nineteen police officers and a K-9 to investigate a 9-1-1 caller’s claim that a Latino man and two girls, “possibly Hispanic” were attempting a break-in “using tools”—and defending that protocol. “In smaller communities, like Santa Monica,” Seabrooks explained “a response of this type is not uncommon.”
Unfortunately, in incidents involving women of color, such responses by law enforcement seem to have become common in recent months, with police acting aggressively in non-criminal, non-confrontational encounters and escalating them into violent ones.
Last July, twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland, who after refusing to put out her cigarette in the course of a Texas traffic stop was pulled from her car, threatened with a Taser ("I'm going to light you up," Trooper Brian Encina was recorded on dashboard-camera telling her), arrested without being told why, and pushed face-first into the grass. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after the stop; her death, officially ruled a suicide, is currently being considered by a grand jury. The month before that, McKinney, Texas, officer Eric Casebolt, responding to reports of an unruly pool party, was videotaped grabbing fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton by the hair, throwing her to the ground, sticking his knee into her back, and shoving her into the grass, yelling “on your face!” —then pulling his gun on other teens. And in October, video captured Richland County, South Carolina, deputy Ben Fields flipping a slumped high school student out of her desk, wrestling her to the ground, then dragging her across the floor of the classroom.
As a white woman it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an interaction with police officers like these, or the one that Fay Wells describes. I’m more likely to be assumed as a victim of a burglary than a burglar. It’s hard to believe that an officer who hadn’t identified himself would continue to point a gun at me after I’d put my hands up and obediently followed his order. In fact, if I'm honest, I reflexively hesitate to attribute aggressive response and escalation by police offices to race at all—because it's easy for me to deny. And I’m not alone. A survey by McClatchy-Marist from December 2014 showed 50 percent of whites have “a great deal of confidence in the police to gain the trust of those they serve” compared with only 22 percent of African Americans.
Having been on the receiving end of an aggressive and unnecessarily escalated response has permanently changed how Fay Wells feels about the criminal justice system despite assurances from the Santa Monica police that they only intended to keep her safe.
The Santa Monica police department is currently reviewing what happened at Wells's home. Chief Seabrook says the incident is “reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink.” Others might see it as indicative of a different pattern, in which disproportionate response by police—operating with wide discretion and little accountability—is actually putting certain women at much greater risk.
Years ago, when I was in my late twenties and living in Washington DC, I had a German houseguest for a week, a woman named Irena who was spending her summer touring the U.S. My girlfriend and I had a tiny apartment with no guest room—but that was no problem for Irena. She slept in the living room on a small folding mat she’d brought with her. I was impressed by how light she traveled. Everything she needed for six weeks was contained in a small backpack. In the days she spent with us, she proved a remarkably easy houseguest, almost invisible. If she used a dish, she washed it immediately. To get around DC she politely declined the use of our car, and took public buses instead. Looking at her tidy pile of neatly folded stuff in the corner of our living room, I recall thinking, Here is a person dedicated to minimizing the ripple she makes as she passes through the world. She took up such little space, made such little impact. In comparison I felt like an oaf of consumption, a wasteful giant, lumbering heedlessly through life.
I’ve thought about Irena during the current climate meeting in Paris, and about how individuals and nations respond to the challenge of climate change—or don’t. An article in the Times delineates Germany’s leading role in reducing dependence on fossil fuels, calling it a “global model.” The country has been busily investing in renewable and other alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bioenergy), reducing fossil-fuel consumption even as it phases out nuclear power (a decision made after the Fukushima disaster), all measures taken by way of following an ambitious plan to cut 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions by 80% within sixty years. In the process, Germany has managed to do something no other developed country has achieved: cut energy use without shrinking the economy. Usually, it takes a recession to diminish energy use. Germany is doing it by the efficient execution of an assiduous design.Read more
Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”
Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.
Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is called “privilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:
When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.
The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)
Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:
When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”
To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.Read more
At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”
The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?
“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.
Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.
In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?Read more
Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.
In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."
The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.
Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.
In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”
Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:
An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”
The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.
It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.
The whole thing is worth a read.
Volkswagen’s installation of software for circumventing emissions standards in at least 11 million cars worldwide is just the kind of thing that makes people think of “business ethics” as a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t help that the auto industry as a whole has a long and tarnished history of such behavior. From the hard-to-handle Corvairs that helped launch Ralph Nader to fame, to the exploding Pintos of the 1970s, to more recent examples involving ignition cutoffs, unintended acceleration, and malfunctioning airbags—defects their respective manufacturers often knew about but kept secret—sneaking substandard, potentially dangerous products into showrooms seems as much a part of the deal as offering undercoating. Not every recall notice is compelled by a government agency’s post-sale discovery of a sometimes deadly defect. But enough are to remind us why regulations and regulatory agencies are needed. Is this also the place to bemoan the rarity of severe and enforceable punishment, including damaging fines and criminal penalties?
A few things stand out about the Volkswagen revelation. First, it seems to many a kind of personal betrayal: Why did they do it? Timmons Roberts at the Brookings Institute gets to this, writing about his “long love affair” with VWs dating back to childhood, a love affair now soured. Anyone who grew up in or around families (or had college friends) with VW buses, or learned how to drive stick-shift in an old Beetle, would probably understand.Read more
Everyone's got a hot take on the Pope this week. The Washington Post's George Will went full Thomas Nast in fearful preparation for Francis's arrival. ("Francis's seeming sympathy for medieval stasis...against modernity, rationality, science.") All he needed was a cartoon with mitres shaped like alligator heads attacking financiers on Wall Street.
By contrast, the New York Times's David Gelles offered a playful, well-reported piece on the front page of the business section (!) about the sharkskin-suit-wearing concert producer behind the scenes of the big show. ("The bishops," the producer said, "aren't showbiz guys.")
What's a scholar to do? What's my take?
I scooped them all.
In an article for Yahoo's page about the papal visit, I explain the "breaking news" about the Pope's concluding Mass in Philadelphia.
Detailed study of an advance, partial script of the worship service shows that the theme of income inequality will be dramatically emphasized.
With rhetorical flourish and prophetic fervor, the Mass will call for the “rich” to “weep and wail” over “impending miseries.” More specifically, the issue of wages will be explicitly addressed: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers” are “crying aloud.” The plight of migrant “harvesters,” undercompensated by absentee landlords, will feature as an example.
Did I use my Jesuit connections to secure an advance copy of the Pope's remarks? I wish. No collar, no embargoed remarks.
Instead, I checked the lectionary. It turns out that some of the strongest language in the Bible against income inequality (James 5:1-6) happens to appear in this Sunday's Mass. Pope Francis's emphasis on systematic exploitation of workers and migrants is, as Bible-readers know, deeply biblical. On Sunday this theme will be on display for all, and I imagine Pope Francis will take the opportunity to preach on it.
It remains to be seen whether and how he incorporates this reading with the Gospel for the day. But thanks to the lectionary, millions of people will at least hear how central to the scriptures is the cry of the poor.
(You can read the rest right here.)
Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.
Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:
No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.
Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.
Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:
Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.
Read all of 'The More You Know' here.
Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .
See the full table of contents for August 14 here:
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.Read more
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