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Peter Steinfels on Politicizing Pope Francis

Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.

Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.

Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where

the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.

And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has

acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.

So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.

Bringing Bernie Back Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Stewart's lessons for journalism

Years ago I interviewed a portrait artist whose portfolio included some distinctly unappealing clients. When I asked if clients had ever expressed buyer's remorse over his honest portrayals, he said most people—at least those seeking a public profile—like what they see in the mirror.

On another level, most people seeking a public profile like what they hear when they speak. During my years as a daily newspaper reporter, whenever I quoted someone making what I considered a bigoted or ignorant remark I braced myself for accusations of misrepresentation. But that almost never came.

One particularly virulent homophobe actually called to congratulate me on fairly presenting his views.

That's why I wasn't at all surprised by the reaction last week when "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams revisited some disgraced—at least in the majority view of the show's audience—interview subjects. Her task during Jon Stewart's final week at the helm was to see if they harbored any grudges.

No, said the pastor who once compared Obama to Hitler, he wasn't a bit sorry he had appeared on the show. But he conceded that he had changed his mind about Obama—whom he now related to Satan.

One of the many brilliant aspects of Stewart's "Daily Show" was that Stewart knew the surest way to skewer ignorance or bigotry is to simply let it speak for itself. He made most of his points simply by running footage of the target.

And while interviews were blatantly edited to allow "correspondents" to insert their—often astounded—reactions, you had the sense that the person being interviewed was given every chance to redeem him- or herself.

Stewart consistently called himself a comedian, not a journalist, yet he exemplified the journalistic lesson that honest means are also the most effective.

Searing as his satire was, he was a rare positive presence on the political and media landscape. Probably that's why he was remarkably successful in getting people he disagreed with to come on his show.

Sure, they did it in large part because of his popularity. But they also came, I think, because they trusted he wouldn’t try to misrepresent them. Rather, he honestly revealed them—and there's satisfaction all around in that.

Brian Williams returns

Although a big part of me wanted former NBC news anchor Brian Williams to be fired after he embellished and even downright fabricated stories about his reporting in the field, I can accept his just announced return to a new and different job at MSNBC.
Lester Holt has held the NBC anchor chair since Williams was suspended without pay for six months, and it would have been unforgivable on two counts—at least among journalists—to give Williams his old job back.

One, Holt has done a fine job. He's more Walter Cronkite, while Williams is more Johnny Carson. Two, even though Williams lied mostly on talk shows, not from the anchor chair, he shouldn't get to lead a news organization. Not even if viewers—and therefore advertisers—don't care. Surely corporate news executives retain, or feel compelled to exhibit, at least that much decency.

But given that Williams has apologized and been humiliated for his sins, I don't think it's necessary that he be drummed entirely and permanently out of the news business. I must say, however, that during my years in the business I've seen non-celebrity journalists drummed out for less.

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How to Worry about Selfie Sticks

There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning the language pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it makes one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see. 

Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.

Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”

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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.

The End of 'Mad Men'

In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.

People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.

Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.

A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.

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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 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.

Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."


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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.

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.

'The Pope and Mussolini' Has Won the Putlizer

David Kertzer's biography The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe was awarded a Putlizer Prize earlier this week. Kertzer was able to write it because of the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy. The complex details of the seven years it took Pius and Mussolini to negotiate two agreements--a political treaty that recognized the pope’s sovereignty over Vatican City and a concordat that regulated the church’s position in the Italian state--is the subject of this book, told through vivid biographical sketches of Pius and Mussolini's personal lives leading up to their positions of power, and how these personalities both clashed and compromised:

With strong opinions and an increasingly authoritarian manner, the pope shared the fascists’ opposition to communism even as he continued to distrust their sincerity and press for greater influence over Italian society.

If you're thinking of reading it, James Sheehan wrote a great review for us last September.

On "lynch mobs"

In a remarkably intemperate column published earlier this week at First Things, Robert P. George describes the "lynch mob" that he believes to be targeting opponents of same-sex marriage in the United States:

The lynch mob is now giddy with success and drunk on the misery and pain of its victims. It is urged on by a compliant and even gleeful media. It is reinforced in its sense of righteousness and moral superiority by the “beautiful people” and the intellectual class. It has been joined by the big corporations who perceive their economic interests to be in joining up with the mandarins of cultural power. It owns one political party and has intimidated the leaders of the other into supine and humiliating obeisance.

For the record, here's an account of a real-life lynch mob:

The scene at Macon Road near the bridge on the day of the lynching was like a "holiday" according to one newspaper, many people having stayed overnight. In the morning hundreds of men, women, and children gathered, and by 9.00 a.m. the road was packed with automobiles. A total of about 5,000 people attended the event, which had a carnival-like atmosphere according to Goings and Smith. Spectators bought soft drinks, sandwiches, and chewing gum, women wore their best clothes, and parents excused their children from school. One teacher at a school had 50 boys absent. Because of examinations, some county schools closed early, allowing the children to attend. Two trucks of drinks sold out swiftly, and sales of sandwiches and chewing gum were high.

Having arrived separately to Persons at about 9.00 am, Rappel's mother gave a speech: "I want to thank all my friends who have worked so hard on my behalf ... Let the Negro suffer as my little girl suffered, only 10 times worse"—sentiments which were echoed by the crowd. Persons was chained down, had a large quantity of gasoline poured over him, and set alight. The leader of the group had asked Rappel's mother if she wanted to light it; she declined, but said she "wished Persons to suffer the tortures he dealt to his victim". Persons was reportedly calm and casual, and made no sound except for a "faint pig squeal" when set alight. Mays said he stood close to his head "in spite of the African odor" and watched the whole performance. Members of the mob tried to help women who could not see get a better view, but they failed because of the sheer numbers. While Persons was burning, spectators snatched pieces of his clothes and the rope used to bind him. A newspaper described the moment of the lighting: "A crowd of some 5,000 men, women and children cheered gloatingly as the match was applied and a moment later the flames and smoke rose high in the air and snuffed out the life of the black fiend."

Persons' body was decapitated and dismembered, and his remains were scattered and displayed across Beale Street—the centre of the African American community in Memphis—where his head was thrown from a car at a group of African Americans. According to Charles W. Cansler, a spokesman for the local black community, his head was thrown into a room which contained black doctors. His remains were taken as souvenirs, and photographs of his head were sold on postcards for months after the event. The Commercial Appeal's headline the day after the lynching read: "Thousands cheered when negro burned: Ell Persons pays death penalty for killing girl", and their editorial on 25 May described the lynching as "orderly. There was no drunkenness, no shooting and no yelling."

And here's an account of George's "lynch mob" at work in Indiana:

Kevin O’Connor tells TMZ he's had to temporarily close his business after he told a reporter he would refuse to cater a gay wedding under Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. O'Connor says he was immediately flooded by threatening phone calls, and social media postings.

O'Connor wants to clear up one thing: He says he would never deny service to gay people in his restaurant. However, due to his religious beliefs, he does not believe in gay marriage ... and that's why he wouldn't service one.

Meanwhile, he says the threats have been serious enough that he's closing his pizza joint ... at least until the dust settles.

Drawing an analogy between these activities is not merely tone-deaf, inflammatory, and offensive, though of course it is all those things too. More importantly, it cheapens the suffering of those who endured, and continue to endure, extra-judicial violence and brutality because they happened to be born with skin of the wrong complexion. And as Paul Horwitz wrote earlier this week, this is exactly the sort of hyperbole that the public debate over religious freedom needs to do without.

I know, I know, the base needs its red meat. And there is room for serious criticism of the Left's position on religious liberty, and on much of what's been done to silence and punish their opponents. But if what it is to "stand shoulder to shoulder, and arm-in-arm" with George and his allies is to compare inconvenienced pizza shop owners to dead black boys, and angry posts on Facebook to cheers at the sight of their burning bodies, then I am going to count myself out.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The death of Walter Scott

With a murder charge filed against a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled--according to a now widely circulated video--I wondered what account police initially gave of the shooting before the video surfaced. A story that the Charlleston Post and Courier carried on Saturday, the day of the shooting, provides the answer. Police in North Charleston, S.C., maintained that  the officer fired to protect himself after Walter Scott, 50, grappled with him for his Taser and took control of it. As the paper reported, with careful use of attribution:

Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.

The video discloses much more. It does appear to show a struggle over some object that falls to the ground. Then it shows Scott turning his back on the offer and running away.The officer, Michael Slager, aims his gun and shoots eight times, until Scott falls. Slager then handcuffs Scott, who is face down on the ground. Then he goes back to pick up the object that had fallen to the ground, and appears to return to drop it beside Scott's body, according to The New York Times.

As the mayor of North Charleston told the Charleston Post and Courier, without the video, the events that followed would have gone much differently.  





Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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A journalist's sacred duty

When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.

Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.

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Sullivan's Dish is done

I wasn’t sure I wanted to post on Andrew Sullivan’s announced retirement from blogging until it became clear whether the Daily Dish would go on without him. Today the answer came: It won’t. Sullivan this morning announced that Friday will be the Dish’s last day

There’s been a number of encomia to Sullivan and his blog written since last week. His announcement has also elicited critiques and rehashes of previous critiques on his writing career (going back decades) and his editorial decision-making. It’s ground worth covering but also well-covered and won’t get more coverage in this post – though there may be some who have a thing or two to say.

I came around to regular reading of Sullivan’s blog about the time he was rethinking his position on the war in Iraq. Hard to say exactly what it was that made his site the first one I checked every day, or the one I soon began to check most often. But I do recall finding his site much less shrill (believe it or not) and somewhat more reasoned than those then breaking through on the left-leaning side of the blogosphere. (I’d count Matthew Yglesias as another who at the time was reliably providing a safe place of sensible commentary.) I liked that he posted on a range of serious matters and a number of others that were less so. I liked how he said what he had to say on same-sex marriage, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Dick Cheney, Michael Moore, and the Clintons. I was willing to give him even more leeway on his obsession with the story of Trig Palin’s birth and the woman who could have been vice president. I thought he captured and in some ways reflected what at the time was being characterized as the Obama phenomenon. I was also interested in his public Catholicism, and in his public hashing out of where his pronouncements and positions might put him in opposition to its tenets or most vocal adherents, or in line with them.

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