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.
Pope Francis's in-flight press conferences--freewheeling, unscripted, even unredacted (at least for the moment)--have produced quite a bit of news. Who could forget "Who am I to judge?" Or the time the pope said that a friend who talks smack about his mom "is going to get a punch in the nose"? Reporters know that asking Francis the right question in just the right way might elicit a headline-worthy response. No surprise, then, that on the flight back to Rome following the pope's visit to South America, where he took globalization to the woodshed, a couple of enterprising reporters wanted to talk economics. Roll tape.
Noting how often Francis had spoken of the poor over the past several days, one German journalist wanted to know why the pope didn't say more about "the middle class, that is, the working people, the people who pay taxes, normal people, like the Greeks." All right, he didn't actually mention the Greeks. He did, however, want to know the pope's message for those non-abnormal, responsible payers of taxes.
Instead of asking the reporter whether he realized that Bolivia--where he delivered his stinging rebuke to purveyors of globalization--is the poorest country in South America, that 60 percent of its 8 million residents live below the poverty line, a quarter of them in extreme poverty, Francis responded graciously: "Thank you very much, that is a nice correction. You are right, that is a mistake on my part. I have to think about that." The Catholic News Agency made it sound like Francis had never considered this before: "You're right, I'll have to come up with something!" But Francis didn't quite say that, and he wasn't done answering the question.Read more
We've posted two new stories to the website.
First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.
Read the whole thing here.
Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:
…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.
Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?
Read the whole editorial here.
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.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is among the most intelligent and fair-minded commentators on Catholic issues writing today. I often disagree with him, but even when I do I tend to share his reservations about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA. The problem, of course, is determining what is essential and what isn’t. The history of Catholicism can be quite surprising in that regard, as Frank Oakley’s article in our ninetieth anniversary issue demonstrated (“Authoritative & Ignored”).
Less compelling is Douthat’s tendency to wave the bloody shirt of schism when struggling to come to grips with a pope who is clearly not as punctilious when it comes to doctrine and discipline as were his immediate predecessors. Douthat has a long article in The Atlantic, “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” that rehearses many of the arguments he has made on his blog and occasionally in his columns about the dangers of “a kind of progressive ultramontanism.” Unfortunately, beyond a brief indictment of Garry Wills, when it comes to the errant views of Catholic progressives Douthat does not name names. Wills’s views are fairly unrepresentative, even idiosyncratic, as Douthat himself concedes. But what most progressives share with Wills, Douthat insists, is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.” Worse, “progressives” think “a revolution from above can carry all before it.”
I have made the acquaintance of many so-called liberal Catholics, and a desire to strengthen Rome’s hand for any reason has never been high on their wish list. Indeed, for most liberal Catholics a revolution from above would not be a liberal solution at all. I have, however, heard many conservative Catholics say something about the need for “a revolution from above” when waxing on about how the steely witness of John Paul II and Benedict righted the church’s sinking ship. George Weigel, for one, won’t stop proclaiming the resounding success of that revolution.
Still, Douthat is right to ask hard questions about what in the church can change and what cannot.Read more
Last week Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a lecture at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. He titled it “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis."
But he might well have titled it, An outline of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical.
Vatican expert and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh called the lecture “a curtain-raiser” from “the man whose council wrote the first draft.”
The lecture’s overall themes and key phrases resound with the language Pope Francis has used since day one of his pontificate. But more importantly, it signals both how scripture will be interpreted anew against the backdrop of ecological degradation and how Francis’s teaching on “integral ecology” builds on the magisterium of the previous two popes.
The phrase “integral ecology” seems primed to become the encyclical’s central idea. Turkson describes it as “the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.”Read more
In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.
Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”
In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.
I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.Read more
“I want to assure everyone,” Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano wrote in 2008, “that I have never hidden or protected anyone convicted of any crime.” The bishop was attempting to quell the outcry of Catholics in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, over his decision to invite an accused priest and his followers—the Society of St. John—to establish themselves in his diocese. “My track record in these cases is very clear,” Livieres continued. “Just as I have not hesitated to convict the guilty, neither will I punish an innocent victim of slander.” The victim, according to Livieres, was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, an Argentine native who has been followed by allegations of sexual misconduct across three countries over three decades.
That troubling history, readily available to anyone with an internet connection, made it difficult for many Ciudad del Este Catholics to take their bishop at his word. So in 2009 they mounted a campaign against him, enlisting the support of other Paraguayan bishops and priests, who took the case to Pope Benedict XVI. But, unbeknownst to them, Livieres claimed to have the support of Benedict—in part because of their shared fondness for the Latin Mass. Livieres’s critics would not receive a satisfying response to their complaints until Benedict retired—and Pope Francis was elected.
Livieres was installed as bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004. Before he even arrived, Livieres—a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—caused consternation among the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Paraguay. The bishops were surprised by John Paul II’s decision to appoint Livieres because his name was not on the terna—the list of three names recommended by the local bishops conference. Soon after Livieres took over in Ciudad del Este, more than one hundred fifty clerics wrote to Pope Benedict XVI to protest the bishop’s “renewal of church discipline” and “new pastoral guidelines,” as Livieres would later put it. But Benedict did not respond, according to an account Livieres wrote in 2014. Instead, Benedict told him to “form a new clergy,” according to the bishop. He took that advice, and established his own seminary. That failed to go over with other bishops, who wanted to know what was wrong with the main seminary in Asunción.
Livieres also clashed with his fellow bishops over the candidacy of former bishop Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, who ran for president of Paraguay in 2008—and won. Lugo had ties to the liberation-theology movement, which Livieres long opposed. But Livieres also criticized Lugo for fathering children before he left the episcopate—and his brother bishops for remaining “silent” about it. During a radio interview, the archbishop of Asunción, Pastor Cuquejo Verga, publicly called for the Vatican to investigate Livieres. In a follow-up interview, Livieres rebuffed Cuquejo’s suggestion, and called him a homosexual.Read more
In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”
But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.
Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.
Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)
The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.Read more
John Doe had had enough. Enough see-sawing between career paths. Enough retail work. Enough physical labor. Enough aches from such work. Enough pain pills. Enough drinking. Enough wanting to die. Enough denial. He had had enough. So he went through detox, received therapy following his suicide attempts. And now that his head was clear, he was ready to talk.
The first person John told he had been sexually assaulted by priests was his girlfriend, according to his sworn testimony. The second person he told was a friend. Following his suicide attempts, John disclosed the allegations to his counselors. And in late 2001, a few months after he left recovery—before he talked to his parents—John told another person he’d been molested by clerics: Jeffrey Bond. He may have been shocked by John’s claims, but it’s unlikely that he was surprised.
In April 2000, Bond had been hired by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity to establish the College of St. Justin Martyr. Three years earlier, Urrutigoity—originally from Argentina—approached Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see about setting up a community of clerics devoted to restoring liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. In addition to the college, Urrutigoity told Timlin, now retired, that he hoped to build a seminary and an entire town for traditionalist Catholics. Urrutigoity and his associates, who would call themselves the Society of St. John, had come calling because they had just been ousted from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—which rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Leaders of the SSPX were not happy about Urrutigoity’s plan to organize a new, more spiritually rigorous group within SSPX. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, was also concerned about Urrutigoity’s “strange, abnormal” influence over seminarians and other priests, according to a letter he later sent Timlin.
Misconduct allegations would follow Urrutigoity from Argentina to the United States, and eventually to Paraguay, where as early as 2012 he would be promoted to vicar general by the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. Pope Francis removed Livieres last September.
In Bishop Timlin, long fond of the Latin Mass, Urrutigoity found a sympathetic ear. He told the bishop that his group wanted to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Timlin forwarded their request to the Vatican. After it was promptly approved, the SSJs were allowed to reside at St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist group that exclusively celebrates the Latin Mass but remains in full communion with Rome. Urrutigoity would later testify that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had invited his group to St. Gregory's. It would be a temporary arrangement, until the SSJs moved to property they would purchase in Shohola, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. But in the meantime, St. Gregory’s got new chaplains and religion teachers; the SSJs got a home base from which to plan their Catholic college, seminary, and village; and Bishop Timlin got another group of priests who were devoted to the Latin Mass. Timlin didn’t realize it at the time, but by allowing the SSJs to establish themselves in Scranton he had invited the greatest scandal his diocese had ever known.Read more
Late this afternoon the Holy See announced two unrelated bits of news: First, the laicized former nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, has been placed under house arrest in the Vatican City State as he stands indicted for sexually abusing minors. Wesolowski was recalled to Rome in June after the allegations surfaced. Following a canonical proceeding, he was swiftly returned to the lay state. But questions remained about whether he would face civil justice--both in the country where he allegedly abused children and in his native Poland. Following an August report in the New York Times, the Vatican announced that it was open to extraditing Wesolowski, but hasn't said for sure whether extradition was imminent. Today's statement did not do much to clarify matters. But it does suggest that confining Wesolowski was ordered by Pope Francis.
Second, the Vatican and the schismatic Society of St. Pius X are trying to get back together again. According to the Holy See, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, met today with SSPX head Bishop Bernard Fellay. Talks between the Vatican and the SSPX broke down in 2012, after Fellay refused to sign a doctrinal agreement drafted by the Holy See. Reconciling with the SSPX had long been a top priority of Benedict XVI. Today's Vatican statement doesn't say much--just that Mueller and Fellay met for two hours, that they discussed "various doctrinal problems," and that they agreed to proceed "gradually" and "over a reasonable period of time" with the goal of "full reconciliation." God keeps opening doors for the SSPX, but it doesn't seem like its leaders are all that interested in walking through any of them.
SAN DIEGO -- At the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting on Saturday, Archbishop John R. Quinn, emeritus of San Franciscio, responded to critiques of his 2013 book on reforning structures of church governance, Ever Ancient, Ever New. Quinn, who served as president of the U.S. bishops conference from 1977 to 1980, previewed that volume's arguments in a talk he delivered at Stanford last year. "Media reports dealing with reform tend to focus on clerical celibacy and on the ordination of women and on the reform of the Curia," he said. "These are important topics, but it would be a mistake to stop there."
The reform he urges involves decentralizing papal authority and increasing the authority of local bishops conferences. In order to achieve those goals, Quinn argued, the church has to establsh regional bishops conferences and episcopal synods that would carry out the administration of the local church (e.g., appointing bishops, handling liturgical issues, etc.). These reforms were called for by the bishops at Vatican II, according to Quinn. After Pope John Paul II asked for recommendations on reforming the papacy in Ut Unum Sint, Quinn published a book about these issues called The Reform of the Papacy (1999). Yet throughout his ponificate, John Paul continued to centralize authority in the office of the pope. Local bishops conferences lost authority. "To date," Quinn told the Stanford audience, "fifty years after the council, no deliberative synod has ever been held." His latest book is an attempt to reignite the conversation he began nearly twenty-five years ago.
The first respondent to Quinn's book was Amanda Osheim of Loras College, and the second was Joseph Komonchak (who requires no introduction here). I've collected my tweets of the session below, so remember: you may find some typos; unless you see quotation marks, I'm paraphrasing; and owing to the density and speed of the remarks, I may not have captured the speakers' intent with total clarity. The tweet parade begins after the jump.Read more
Almost fifty years ago, the conciliar document Nostra aetate removed a cancer from the heart of Christianity. Its central section, on Jews and Judaism, overturned centuries of faulty interpretation regarding the main "teaching of contempt" for Jews that was part of Christian culture, doctrine, and liturgy.
Surgery is one thing; rehabilitation another. The first is relatively quick and anesthetized; what follows is more challenging, sometimes painful, and often a test of perseverance and endurance.
So as the Pope prepares for the Holy Land, how healthy is the Jewish-Christian relationship? And how is Israel preparing for the Pope?Read more
Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.
Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?
Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.
CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?
Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.
When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.
So it has come to this. We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.
As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin--Iniquitas radix malorum--that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.” This followed only days after the dustup over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.
Younger Catholics may find this hard to believe, but there once was a time when the vast majority of Catholics did not hang on every word spoken or written by a pope. Admittedly, this was a relatively short period covering only the first 1,800 years or so of the Church’s existence, so it is understandable how some may have missed it.
During the first millennia and a half of Christian history, popes did not commit themselves to paper (at least not paper that was mean to be widely disseminated) very often. It sometimes surprises people to learn, for example, that the bishops of Rome played only a marginal role in the great 4th century councils that gave us the Nicene Creed. In the Middle Ages, doctrinal disputes were more likely to be settled by the faculty of the University of Paris than by Rome.
This is not to say that the papal office was unimportant. Far from it. Popes such as Leo I, Gregory VII, and Innocent III had an enormous impact on both the Church’s inner life and the society and politics of their age. But the popes shared the stage, as it were, with equally towering figures such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, and, of course, Francis of Assisi.Read more
Yesterday Pope Francis took to Twitter to launch a new phase of Catholic Social Teaching. With just seven words he shook the foundations of the Catholic moral universe: "Inequalty is the root of social evil," Francis wrote. Both Catholic and non-Catholic observers alike struggled to find their bearings. Joe Carter of the social-justice think tank the Acton Institute responded quickly: "Um, no it's not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil." He wondered whether Francis had "traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty"--the economist whose latest book on the unfairness of capitalism has become a global phenomenon.
Catholic Culture poobah Phil Lawler also expressed skepticism, calling the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement, [and] as an a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He decided that the best way to understand Francis's tweet was to go to the original Latin: that "version of this tweet is even simpler: Iniquitas radix malorum. That phrase has a somewhat different meaning." Lawler's Latin expertise leads him to assert that "iniquitas" might also mean "iniquity" or "injustice," which would "make more sense," even though the Spanish version of the tweet "admittedly looks more like the English."
Non-Catholic Mollie Hemingway was likewise confused. "I don't understand what this is supposed to mean, exactly," she tweeted, later suggesting "envy and coveting" were really to blame for social evil. Former Catholic Rod Dreher found himself flummoxed too: "What does that even mean?" He continued: "Twitter pronouncements like the Pope’s are simplistic and confusing."
It's true. Twitter is not an ideal place to advance complex moral arguments. Wouldn't it be better if the pope developed some of this at greater length, in, say, some sort of letter to the faithful? He might even consider exhorting his people in an apostolic manner, for example, with a title like Evangelii Gaudium or some such, perhaps under a section heading reading "The Economy and the Distribution of Income." Come again? He's done just that? Over the course of several paragraphs? And it's been publicly available for months? Oh. Roll tape.Read more
When I am discussing baseball players or musicians, I find it very appropriate and enjoyable to get into sparring matches about “who’s better?” Not so much with popes. And so personally, I find this dual canonization very gratifying. It gives us as a church an opportunity for gratitude, to say what it meant for these men to lead us.
I was minus-9 years old when Angelo Roncalli died. (So “I was not,” I supposed you could say.) But St. John XXIII fathered the Catholic world in which I grew up. Had there been no John XXIII, I suppose my Mass might still have been in Latin, my grade-school sisters in habits, and my lessons filled with the terrors of mortal sins and the dangers posed by associating with Protestants. It’s a counterfactual, so who really knows? It’s easy to stereotype (nostalgically or critically) “the pre-Vatican-II” church. All I know from my own experience is that John XXIII meant that I can never remember a time when somehow faith seemed like a museum piece, separate from life. Faith and life flowed together, in ways sometimes messy, sometimes deeply fruitful. I am grateful for that. I came to know John XXIII himself only in college, through stumbling across Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography. It was absorbing reading, the picture of the unlikely, kindly pope who surprised everyone and changed Catholicism. I later read the collection of “Xavier Rynne’s” columns from the Council itself, relishing how energetically and ingeniously the Church had made this huge step forward. And I read Pacem in Terris, a powerful, sweeping document that urged peace as a central mark of my college Catholic practice. Together with discovering Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, I saw my Catholicism as this boundless, hopeful, challenging vision for the world.
My subsequent education happily demonstrated that Vatican II was not (and could not have been) a one-man show, as if it was the pope against everyone else. A couple generations of quiet innovation and careful (often ecclesially dangerous) work had gone on that made the Council’s achievements possible. But without John, there would have been no opportunity. John XXIII understood what many, then and now, do not quite get: the Church does not need to be paralyzed with fear, anxiety, and defensiveness. The Gospel is one of joy. As is fitting in this season of resurrection, we can embrace as John did the greeting of the Risen Christ: “Do not be afraid.”Read more
Listen up, everyone, because Maureen Dowd has some serious thoughts about this weekend's big double canonization. You'll find them in her April 23 column: "A Saint, He Ain't" (which, fortuitously, was published just after Alex Pareene's latest blog post detailing "Why Friedman, Brooks, and Dowd Must Go"). It's got all of that trademark Dowd style, which is what makes it so darn awful.
The trouble with Dowd's column is not that she is (as you have probably guessed) critical of the decision to canonize John Paul II. The trouble is that she's writing about it the way she writes about everything else: analysis via insult. Shallow thinking applied to serious subjects is her metier. It's bad enough when her topic is politics -- Pareene's latest post reminds readers of the time she turned a misquotation of John Kerry into a meme, and it is depressing to contemplate just how prominently her smart-alecky-potshot approach figured in the 2004 presidential campaign.
But Dowd's cute turns of phrase and offhand way with facts are particularly painful when she turns to writing about the church, as she does now and then, from her not-that-I-care-but-you-should-care-what-I-think perspective -- and I find her shallow arguments especially irritating when I more or less agree with her basic conclusions.Read more
It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.
But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.
Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed. And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.Read more
Whether or not the potential attacks on Syria transgress the stringent conditions of a just war, what should be said of the money accruing to investors shrewd enough to have invested in it? A friend sent me this intriguing story from USA Today, and I found myself wondering, in Baltimore Catechism terms, about war profiteering. Is it a sin to accept an unsavory dividend from investments in, say, Northrop Grumman or Boeing, when the weaponry they help produce is deployed in a “just war?’ Blessed Pope John Paul II never pronounced on this, but when he was Karol Wojtyla, he wrote a suggestive poem about something like it.
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