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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of Kettles and Pots MORE

In a world where charges, counter-charges, and uber-charges of anti-Semitism are rife, there is one place where the charge would be ridiculous--Israel. Think again.

The U.S. Ambassador, Dan Shapiro was attacked as a "little Jew boy," by a former advisor to PM Netanyahu. Shapiro speaking at a recent conference referred to the different legal systems that apply in the West Bank: for settlers, Israeli civil law; for Palestinians, Israeli military law. That characterization, while true, is forbidden to be mentioned. Shapiro may be the first U.S. ambassador to say so publicly, but he is not the first to say it.

But maybe calling Shapiro, "Jew boy," isn't anti-Semitic, maybe it's just anti-American, or anti-Obama, or....whatever.

The Forward has the story and reports "The criticism heaped on Shapiro was not dissimilar to that aimed at Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who last week called for an independent investigation into Israel’s efforts to quell a surge in violence, saying that in some cases Palestinian assailants were being killed 'extrajudicially.'"

Netanyahu’s energy minister called Wallstrom “anti-Semitic, whether consciously or not,” and the prime minister did not back away from that characterisation, saying of Wallstrom’s suggestion: “it’s outrageous, it’s immoral and it’s stupid.” 

UPDATE: Without mentioning the insult to Shapiro, this NYTimes editorial defends his remarks concerning the different legal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. "The criticism of Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted. Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its greater rights and protections. The disparity is likely to become more acute if Israelis abandon the two-state solution in favor of a single state, as some in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet desire."

The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

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

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

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

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Saudi Arabia: How Do We Know What We Know?

The upheaval and uproar over the Saudi behading of a Shiite cleric continues with Iran now claiming that the Saudis have bombed their embassy in Yemen (hard to believe, of course, that it could still be standing....). 

The juxtaposition of two items I read this morning suggest how fraught and complicated matters can get and not just in the Middle East, but right here in DC.

First, this at LobLog: "Washington's Multi-Million-Dollar PR Machine."  Eli Lake analyzes from Federal Records how much and to whom Saudi Arabia pays DC firms for pr help in a vareity of matters such as press releases and supplying Saudi officials for quotes and interviews.

Second, this at the New York Times"Saudis Applaud a Toughter Line," a story by veteran reporter Robert Worth (though he may now be retired). The account reports that there is widespread applause in the Saudi population for the government's finally cracking down on terrorists and other troublemakers. There are quotes from twitter with names, from former dissidents, from newspaper columnists, etc. The account has no dateline suggesting that the story has been written right here in the U.S., perhaps even in DC!  Worth has always seemed a good reporter, and perhaps he is just doing his job. I assume he speaks and reads Arabic, but you have to wonder how many of those well-paid PR firms are doing what they're paid to do...puff Saudi Arabia. In this case, it appears to show a rousing display of public opinion as if this were a democratic society.

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: Favorite False Friends

Kaitlin Campbell has just posted links to the new issue of Commonweal (December 4), with a sobering and remarkably direct critique of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that you are unlikely to read in the MSM. I hope all the political junkies here will read it and comment. False Friends by Vanni Cappelli.

Meanwhile Back in the Middle East

President Obama seems a bit put out by the incursion of Russian military into Syria and by the judgement of President Vladmir Putin that the U.S.-led coalition has made a mess of things in Syria. Russia after some days of bombing has made its way from what have been called moderate Syrian rebels to the edges of ISILs occupied Syria. These reports and claims remain hazy at least in the public realm, but the Russians are certainly doing something. But what? We shall see.

Putin's motives are not exactly clear, but are they as mysterious or as destructive as Washington sees them? Are all the residual anti-Russian feeling stirred up reasonably enough over Ukraine blinding Obama, McCain, Clinton, etc. to a clear-eyed analysis of what could be done to end the carnage in Syria and Iraq, a feat that the current coalition has failed to achieve.

In the meantime, this piece by Stephen Lee Myer at the NYTimes offers a coherent account of Putin's views especially about state sovereignty as background to Russia's actions in Syria.

"...At the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.

“Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one,” he declared at the United Nations. The Soviet Union, he said, had once sought to export “social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.”

 

The Cheating Kind

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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'The Leech Woman'

I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.

And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?

Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.

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A breath of fresh air and a dose of reality

President Obama spoke at American University on August 5. In defense of the Iran nuclear agreement he said many things, worth thinking about. Among them a recognition that U.S. and Israeli national interests (at least as seen by PM Netanyahu) are not congruent:

OBAMA: "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal. So to friends of Israel and the Israeli people, I say this. A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.

"I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes  temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.

"I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."

The text of the talk from the Washington Post.   

Paul Pillar analyses Obama's idea of "mindsets."

In Defense of Germans

Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.

What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,”  faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed?  But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:

1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.

2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.

3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.

Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.

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Talk about wasting your money!

AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, and some other members of the U.S. Jewish establishment have announced their intention to spend millions (maybe billions!) to defeat the Iran nuclear deal.

And Yet...the dependable J.J. Goldberg of The Forward tells us that much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment thinks Israel should support its passage. Instead of being obstructionists, they argue, Israel should work with the Obama Administration to insure its implementation. What a great idea!

P.S. Saudi Arabia appears to be on board with the agreement.

Prophecy and Prose

Pope Francis’ recent speech in Bolivia has rekindled the debate over Pope Francis’ views on economics and inequality.  Francis’ defenders have argued that the pope is merely offering a robust presentation of Catholic social teaching.  His more fevered critics see him as a herald of a resurgent Marxism.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that it usually operates at a level of abstraction, as if the choices facing policymakers really did boil down to a choice between capitalism and, well, something else.  To a great extent, this reflects the penchant of American conservatives branding even modest efforts to redress economic inequality as “socialism.”

As fond as I am of Francis, however, I think the pope also bears some responsibility for this.  Phrases like an “economy that kills” and “an economy of exclusion” remind me of John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “culture of relativism.”  In none of these cases do I find the phrases adequately descriptive of the phenomenon in question or analytically helpful in developing remedies.

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Think again

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East presents one of the most complex and convoluted set of issues the country faces. Yet very little changes in how we (or our leaders) think about it. Paul Pillar -- retired CIA officer, visiting scholar at Georgetown and Brookings (also served in Vietnam) -- writes regularly and intelligently about U.S. policy.

In a current essay, he asks what prevents us from conducting a "zero-based" review of MIddle East policy. His premise is that "historical baggage" weighs down politicians and policy makers who resist looking again at why we are doing what we are doing. 

MIddle East policy began with FDR's visit to Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud; in effect, stepping in for the British in the Middle East. "The oil bargain" they struck needs rethinking. Seventy years later, Pillar observes: "In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states."

Other baggage includes the Iranian hostage crisis, 9/11, the Iraq War (the last one!), and our relationship with Israel. On the latter: "The evolution [of the U.S.-Israeli relation]...has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values...."

Pillar recognizes, certainly in the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel, how hard it would be to rethink our policies. In enumerating the barriers to shifting historical baggage, he points to democracy itself. "With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path."

Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

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Illusions Here and Abroad

Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

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Laudato Si' Press Conference: Twitter Roundup

This morning Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' was released and presented by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace.” Alongside Turkson were other presenters: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; Professor John Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Institute for Climate Impact in Potsdam; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher from Rome. The following is some selected Twitter coverage of the event as it happened.

The conference begins:

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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.

Reading the Same-Sex Marriage Polls in Ireland

Ireland is holding a referendum on legalization of same-sex marriage on Friday, historic not just because of the matter at hand but also that it would be decided directly by national popular vote – not (as in the case of seventeen nations that have legalized it) by courts or legislators.

Polling suggests the Yes vote (that is, in favor of legalization) will win handily, but not everyone is so sure. One reason for the uncertainty is the inaccuracy of the polling preceding recent elections in Britain, which predicted a close finish that turned out anything but. Another is the possible role of the well-known social desirability bias – the tendency of a survey respondent not to state true preferences out of fear it might open them to criticism of their motivations. In the United States it’s become mostly associated (if not synonymous) with the Bradley effect, named for 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, an African American who was leading comfortably in pre-election and even exit polling but lost to his (white) opponent George Deukmejian. White voters who told pollsters they’d vote for Bradley did the opposite. Some reports say “a ‘shy’ No vote” is seen as a real possibility in Irish political circles, given

the social pressure to at least appear to be sympathetic to the Yes vote … being felt across the country following endorsements not just from all major political parties but state bodies too. Even Ireland’s police association, the Garda Representative Association, has come out for Yes, the first time it has taken a partisan position on a referendum. 

Some recent polling says more than 75 percent of Irish voters favor altering the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with most business and unions and even some Catholic priests publicly voicing support (the nation’s bishops are encouraging a No vote). The No side is saying that the social desirability bias is definitely at play. Dublin and other urban centers seem a definite Yes, but rural, western Ireland is trending No. Younger voters are in favor of legalization; middle-aged and older ones, less so.

An NPR report this week used the construction “conservative, Catholic Ireland” and also identified the country “one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.” Other reports use similar language, noting the more or less familiar details that it wasn’t until 1985 that Ireland legalized the sale of contraceptives, or until 1993 that it decriminalized homosexuality, or that abortion remains illegal. Would a Yes victory amount to “a heavyweight punch to the body of the church” in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic? Or, as Jesuit priest Oliver Rafferty, a visiting professor at Boston College, suggests in this New York Times piece, might a Yes victory actually offer a new opportunity for the church in Ireland? 

If it can no longer epitomize the broader culture in Ireland, Irish Catholicism can perhaps emerge as a more caring less overtly dogmatic and oppressive feature of the Irish landscape. Its focus might be more concentrated on ministering to peoples’ actual needs than on wielding power in Irish society.