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dotCommonweal Blog

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.

New issue is live

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

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

Read the whole thing here.

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

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

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

Read the whole editorial here.

Putnam and Poverty, Part 1

It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.

Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).

The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.

Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.

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Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

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.

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.

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

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Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

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Paul Ryan, America & the Option for the Poor

Well, kudos to America magazine and to Rep. Paul Ryan for their mutual engagement---with each other and with Pope Francis---on the issue of poverty.

That said, it appears Rep. Ryan's "big idea" for how the federal government can help the poor is by blockgranting federal aid to the poor and letting state governments "try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in other words, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability".  Not only is this an old conservative policy idea; it's one that doesn't help the poor.  (It can, on the other hand, be helpful to state governments that want to cut their own spending on the poor.)

There's also no mention in Ryan's America essay of his fervent desire to cut taxes for wealthy Americans.  In an August interview with The Weekly Standard, Ryan stated that cutting the top marginal income tax rate is "even more pressing now" than it was during the Reagan administration.  Tax cuts---especially for the rich---are in Ryan's view "the secret sauce" that yields "faster economic growth, more upward mobility, and faster job creation".

Ryan does engage with the Church's teachings on subsidiarity and solidarity in his America piece.  Opinions will vary as to how successfully; but given that Ryan will take over budget and tax policy for House Republicans in January, it's worth paying attention to what he's thinking and doing.

The archdiocese & the arts: What’s your angle?

Peter Steinfels’s post on CNN’s framing of a report on the multimillion-dollar residences of U.S. archbishops got me thinking about coverage of another story concerning use (and re-use) of church property. Here in New York, the annual International Fringe Festival opens tomorrow, and among the more than twenty venues at which performances will be staged is the new Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center, “a 25,000-square-foot arts center at Bleecker and Elizabeth streets with two theaters and four rehearsal studios available for rent” operated by the Archdiocese of the City of New York.

The quoted passage above comes from a March 16 Wall St. Journal report, a straightforward account focused mainly on the center’s mission as “‘a place to showcase Christian humanism—the true, the good and the beautiful,’" said executive director Msgr. Michael F. Hull.” (Hull later in the story describes himself as “a card-carrying member of MoMA,” the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.) Six paragraphs into the story—after information on artistic director Jessica Bashline and the type of events she’d like to see staged—the reporter notes that the building is located “near the Bowery” and “dates to the early 1920s, when it served as a parish school and center for the Italian-American community. In 1938, it became a shelter for homeless men and remained as such until 2009.” And that paragraph is followed by this one:

"It wasn't viable to run it, and the neighborhood had changed so much," said Msgr. Hull, describing the evolution of the build's use as a reflection of the changing needs of New York. "We served the Italian immigrants, then homeless men, and now the arts community."

The story then gets to the arts-community angle: how expensive it is to find rehearsal and performance space in New York as real estate costs have shot up, how even though Fringe Festival content might “raise the eyebrows of conservative churchgoers” the only caveat from the archdiocese on style and content is that there’s nothing “hateful about one group of people.” Headline of the Journal piece: “A Marriage of Church and Stage.”

Fast-forward to August 3, when the New York Times ran a story concerned less with the cultural center’s mission and performance schedule than the history of that “building near the Bowery” and the community it once served. Headlined “On the Bowery, Questions About the Church’s Shifting Mission,” the piece quotes several people who either worked at or found meals and showers at the former shelter, which was called (a detail not noted in the Journal story) the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men.

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Cheney's chutzpah and the public debate over Iraq

Do read the new column from E. J. Dionne about "Dick Cheney's Chutzpah," because it's as angry as even-tempered E. J. ever gets. And with good reason. In a field crowded with shameless hawks, cheering for more military action in Iraq while ignoring the consequences of their past enthusiasm for war, Dick Cheney stands out as perhaps the most shameless of all. He and his daughter Liz wrote an op-ed for yesterday's Wall Street Journal, published with a subheadline that left even the most cynical liberals sputtering:

(To be fair, it does say "rarely," which you might read as a concession that it has happened before.)

Is Dick Cheney in any position to be lecturing Barack Obama about fecklesness in foreign policy? Of course not. But his motives for doing so are clear enough. He, like many of the other neocons and Bush-era hawks now pointing fingers at Obama, has a reputation to think about, and a deep investment in shifting the blame for the mess in Iraq onto someone else's shoulders. Embracing a revisionist history of Bush-era foreign policy could have dreadful consequences for most Americans, and especially for the men and women in the military -- not to mention for the people of Iraq and neighboring countries. But it can only be good for Dick Cheney. Here's Dionne on how they'd like the debate to be rigged:

Thanks to the Cheney op-ed, we can see how Obama’s hawkish critics are out to create a double standard. Whenever they are called out for how mistaken they were about Iraq in the first place, they piously lecture against “relitigating the past” and say we must instead look forward. At the same time, many of them feel perfectly free to trash the president in extreme and even vile terms.

A lot of liberals and media types have spoken up in exasperation after watching unreformed and unreflective hawks like John McCain, Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and so on appear on the Sunday-morning shows and on op-ed pages as if they were still respected authorities, with no hard questions about the disastrously wrong predictions they made so confidently before the (last) invasion of Iraq. James Fallows says: "we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong.... we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while." (He links to a lot of other people making similar arguments, including our own Andrew Bacevich -- and, yes, go read that now if you haven't already.)

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UPDATED Melinda Henneberger to speak on Pope and Politics (Fordham)

UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.

In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.

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On the homepage: Minimal wages; Kaveny on ACLU & bishops

Two new items featured on the homepage today. First, the editors on working for less than a living wage:

Contrary to popular misconceptions nourished by some in the media, most of the low-wage workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are not teenagers earning a little pocket money and learning some basic job skills. More than 90 percent of them are adults and almost a third are parents. The federal government spends around $7 billion a year on public assistance just for the families of fast-food workers. If conservative lawmakers are serious about streamlining entitlement programs and promoting self-reliance, they should be lining up behind proposals to raise the minimum wage.

So why aren’t they? It isn’t for lack of public support. A large majority of voters from both parties are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Whatever their opinions about welfare, most Americans agree with Adam Smith that those who work for a living should actually make one. Opponents of a higher minimum wage say it will only hurt the poor by reducing the number of jobs: when labor costs are higher, they warn, employers will hire fewer workers. This argument has a certain intuitive force, but several recent studies suggest that modest minimum-wage increases have no significant effect on employment levels. Lobbyists for retailers and fast-food restaurants also argue that higher wages will drive up business costs, which will be passed along to consumers as higher prices. But research suggests that a $10.10 minimum wage would add only a few pennies to the price of a hamburger. The lobbyists don’t mention that the big corporations they represent could also absorb some of the higher labor costs by accepting lower profit margins.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, Cathleen Kaveny looks deeper into the ACLU's complaint against the USCCB in the case of Tamesha Means, who allegedly received medically negligent treatment in the course of her pregnancy and miscarriage at a Catholic health facility:

The alleged negligent act: promulgating the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

According to the complaint, the USCCB is responsible because it “directed the course of care Plaintiff received.” ... According to the plaintiff, Directive 27 does not require Catholic hospitals to disclose the option of a “previability pregnancy termination,” because (she claims) the church does not see it as morally legitimate. The plaintiff also blames Directive 45, which prohibits abortion. That directive reads: “Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” The plaintiff contends that Directive 45 prevented [the hospital] from either completing the miscarriage or referring her to a place that would do so.

But has Means identified the right defendants? Contrary to popular belief, the USCCB does not have the power to tell individual bishops—or Catholic health-care systems—what to do and what not to do.

Read the whole thing here.

Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

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.

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On the exhortation

Posted to our homepage, two pieces on Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. First, from our editors, who in “Out of the Tomb” write:

Francis wants to remind us that the church derives its whole identity from its mission to preach the gospel and to do so joyfully. This means that all Catholics, whatever their particular vocations, should understand themselves as missionaries. Most important, in order to share God’s mercy with a suffering world, Catholics must not allow their own sufferings to rob them of joy or apostolic vigor. Despite Francis’s characteristically upbeat tone, there is a suggestion of exasperation with those he describes, in the English translation, as “sourpusses.” He cautions against a “tomb psychology” that “slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” He does not quote St. Francis de Sales’s famous maxim “A sad saint is a sorry saint,” but he might have. If Christians really are people who have been liberated by God’s mercy, then, Francis insists, they should act as though they have been liberated.

You can read the whole thing here.

E. J. Dionne Jr. also writes on Francis’s exhortation:

Pope Francis has surprised the world because he embraces the Christian calling to destabilize and to challenge. As the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere, he is especially mindful of the ways in which unregulated capitalism has failed the poor and left them “waiting.”

His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is drawing wide and deserved attention for its denunciation of “trickle-down” economics as a system that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It’s a view that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and has created “a globalization of indifference.” Will conservatives among American Catholics who have long championed tax cutting for the wealthy acknowledge the moral conundrum that Francis has put before them?

But American liberals and conservatives alike might be discomfited by the pope’s criticism of “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” since each side defends its own favorite forms of individualism. Francis mourns “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” not a phrase that will sit well with all on the left.

Read it all here

Back to Lampedusa

Of the many painful details in reports on the capsizing of an overloaded refugee boat a half-mile off Lampedusa last week (the captain setting fire to a blanket to signal shore; the resulting panic of the passengers; the chaos that ensued as the Eritrean migrants—mainly women and children—were pitched into the water), maybe the hardest to bear is that the cries of the drowning were first mistaken for seagulls.

According to some reports, it was “local yachters” who first heard the sounds of the unfolding disaster, which if true provides not just apt symbolism but a literal picture of the divide between, in plain terms, those who have and those who do not. (The New Yorker pointed out that “if [before the accident] you searched the Web for ‘Lampedusa,’ you’d have found tourist sites touting a small Sicilian island with ‘the best bays and beaches.… Welcome to Paradise!’”). Divers were still searching for victims yesterday, with the toll passing three hundred and thirty, even as yet another vessel crowded with refugees capsized off Lampedusa, with twenty-seven dead at last count.

Pope Francis won justifiable attention during his visit to Lampedusa last July for use of the resonant “globalization of indifference” to characterize a dynamic that accommodates such tragedies and the underlying causes from which they arise. Lampedusa is the first destination for many Africans coming to Europe, lying just seventy miles across the Mediterranean from Tunisia. At the time of the pope’s visit, about fifty people in 2013 had died making the journey; that’s changed now, of course, with the total approaching 2012’s total of five hundred. World Bank economist Branko Milanovic estimates that since 1988, twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand people have died crossing from Africa to Europe, though he adds that no one really knows for sure. What’s behind the numbers, Milanovic says, is:

[a basic] issue to which there's no easy answer or easy solution, and that's the question of freedom of movement. We live in a world that is much more globalized, in which capital, knowledge, ideas and so on can travel much more easily. At the same time, it's a world in which people cannot move from country to country. … [It raises] an uncomfortable issue because all the other components of production are mobile, with the exception of one.

Milanovic does not view people merely as “components of production,” however, noting that “in an unequal world where income differences between countries are large, and information about these income differences is widespread, migration ... is simply a rational response to the large differences in the standard of living.” He also decries what he calls the “conspiracy of silence … that envelops” those who die in fleeing poor countries for richer ones. Though lightly clothed in the jargon of economics, his assessment doesn’t sound all that different from the construct Francis offered in July, at which time the pope also called the recurring deaths of migrants seeking better lives “a thorn in the heart.” Speaking after last week’s disaster, though, Francis employed more impassioned rhetoric to describe the migration crisis. “The word disgrace comes to me. It’s a disgrace!”

Long on Lament, Short on Solutions? Dealing with Economic Inequality

Increasing inequality in the United States is a big problem. One recent analysis shows a disturbing graph, which displays not only that, in 2012, the top 1% captured 20% of income, but that the top 10% captured over 50% of income, a number that is higher than at any time in the last century, surpassing even the 1920’s. The graphs show this is not merely a matter of all the rewards of the recent recovery going to the top. As Eduardo Porter outlines it in brief, we are enduring a 30-plus-year stagnation of the middle-class. Bishops are speaking out on this. For many, a long lament on our “new Gilded Age” leads to a hope for a revival of Catholic social teaching. Even Catholic conservatives are taking note that “trickle-down” theories of dealing with poverty are failing. Michael Peppard and Michael Sean Winters have both recently commented that taking this problem seriously is both urgent and yet very difficult. (It is being made much more difficult by our absurd politics. But that would be a different post.)

It’s a difficult problem because we are long on lament, but really short on solutions that pay attention to the specific dynamics of our economy as it exists now. It is a truism that military leaders often “fight the last war” rather than the present one – so too, Catholics and their allies in fighting poverty can fall into talking about solutions that sound like “fighting the last economic war” – namely, that of the early 20th century.

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Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack.

Over the past few years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been steadily criticized by a few prolife groups claiming the bishops’ domestic-poverty program has been funding organizations that promote abortion and artificial contraception. We’ve written about this before. The critics’ stock-and-trade is guilt by association (you know, Jesus’ M.O.). From time to time they may discover a grant that violates the bishops’ own guidelines—which were recently revised to respond to these ceaseless complaints. But mostly it's your basic smear job. They comb coalitions for members who have taken public stances antithetical to church teaching on sex and abortion, then tie them to recipients of Catholic funding. (Protip: If someone on the board of your charity has ever had lunch with someone who publicly disagrees with Catholic teaching on sex or abortion, don’t expect to pass muster with the magisterium of the American Life League.)

Having apparently exhausted their domestic targets, these critics have set their sights on Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ foreign-poverty organization. The latest salvo was delivered by the Population Research Institute, a $1.4 million operation based in Virginia. According to PRI, Catholic Relief Services has been “using funding from American Catholics to distribute contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices” in Madagascar. PRI claims that a representative spoke with CRS workers and local clergy who confirmed that the organization had been “directly involved in the promotion and distribution of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices.”

That sounds bad, and it would be, if PRI’s reporting seemed reliable. But does it? 

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