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dotCommonweal Blog

Abducted in Cameroon

Sr. Gilberte Bussiere; photo courtesy Congrégation Notre-Dame

Two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Cameroon on April 5. The radical Islamist group Boko Haram from Nigeria is suspected. I don’t remember how I came across the story. Did I read it? Was it on the radio? But I know it registered. These were Catholic missionaries. Who were they? The news story didn’t say.

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Telling Vatican 'Secrets.'

Did you catch this week's episode of Frontline, "Secrets of the Vatican" (you can watch online right here)? Probably not the best title, given that the subjects it covers have been pretty well reported: Benedict's resignation, curial dysfunction, sexual abuse, Maciel's crimes, a gay clerical subculture in Rome, the Vatileaks scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank. If you've been keeping up with those stories, you probably won't learn a lot viewing this film.

The first time I watched "Secrets of the Vatican," I found it slightly annoying.

The music: Is there some law requiring documentarians who cover the Catholic Church to score their work with spooky chant or cheese-ball action-movie music? It's distracting, especially when played behind the film's powerful interviews with victims of sexual abuse--including Maciel's son Raul Gonzales. (N.B.: When the film turns to Pope Francis's election and his focus on the poor, the music takes an appropriately humbler turn, replacing pipe organs with pan flutes. Cue Carson Zamfir joke.)

The reenactments: In the segment on the Vatican Bank scandals, the narrator describes the Italian authorites' surveillance operation, just as the camera pans across a roomful of official-looking men intently staring at computers, holding on a young man wearing headphones, leaning in toward the screen as though the thing was about to whisper the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body.

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New issue, now live

Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:

“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.

Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.

And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal. 

Top stories (and top posts) of 2013

In a year that saw a papal resignation (and consequent conclave) and the public embrace of the new pope, it's not surprising that among our most-read articles and blog posts of 2013 are items on these stories, such as our exclusive interview with Francis. But readers also responded to stories on same-sex marriage, public-education reform, and the relationship among work, material necessities, and "the good life." Below are the top ten stories from Commonweal and blog posts from dotCommonweal this year. As this is simply a data-generated tally, are there other stories and posts from 2013 not represented here that are nonetheless worth a mention? Any particular favorites - or further thoughts? 

Top stories

“The Things We Share,” Joseph Bottum

“Less Please: Capitalism & the Good Life,” Gary Gutting

“A Chat with Pope Francis: The Commonweal Interview,” The Editors

“Beyond the Stalemate: Forty Years after Roe,” Peter Steinfels

“Reform of the Reform,” Jackson Lears

“Regime Change: Benedict & His Successor,” William L. Portier

“The Big Chill: ‘Humanae Vitae’ Dissenters Need to Find a Voice,” Cathleen Kaveny

“A New Balance: What the Pope’s Interview Reveals,” The Editors

“Historical Amnesia: When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past,” Nicholas Clifford

“The Big Dig: Reconfiguring the Church in Boston,” Luke Hill
 

Top blog posts

“No, the Pentagon won't court-martial service members for sharing their faith,” Grant Gallicho

“NYT’s ironic fact-check error,” Michael Peppard

“Archdiocese of Wobegon,” Grant Gallicho

“Washing feet,” Rita Ferrone

“Apostolic Nuncio to USCCB: Be pastoral, not ideological,” Grant Gallicho

“Francis: women are the first communicators of the Resurrection,” Grant Gallicho

“Interregnum report, March 6,” Dominic Preziosi

“The conclave bird: a distinctively Roman omen,” Michael Peppard

“When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack,” Grant Gallicho

“Pontifex legibus solutus?” Joseph A. Komonchak

The Genealogy of Jesus

I love the list of names in the Gospel today, Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus.

The list was the subject of a wonderful homily once given by the great Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe which concludes with a memorable Advent meditation:  “Well, that is the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ.  The moral is too obvious to labour:  Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela McNamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the Observer or the Irish Times.  He belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars—He belonged to us and came to help us.  No wonder He came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”

The homily, along with many other splendid things, can be found in Father McCabe’s book, God Matters.  Blessed Advent.

New issue, new stories

We’ve just posted the latest issue to the homepage, and here are some of the highlights:

  • J. Peter Nixon writes there’s still reason to be optimistic about Obamacare – but that “to understand why, it helps to know a few details about the law.”
  • David Cloutier writes on how luxury compromises Christian witness: “If many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable.”
  • John Garvey on the importance of vows – and “the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken” [subscription].

See the full table of contents for the December 20 issue right here.

Also featured today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the return of the working-class hero: “For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news.” Read the whole column here

Money & schools, Catholic & otherwise

Andrew Sullivan flags this piece from Mike Dwyer, headlined “My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education.” It’s not about what’s taught or what isn’t, or about how best to instill in children values and traditions given insufficient weight in a secular culture. Instead it’s about what many education stories seem to be about these days: Money, the divide between the educational haves and have-nots, and the emergence of a separate class of students whose parents can afford annual tuitions approaching or exceeding $20,000 per year.

The once erroneous perception that a Catholic education was only for the well-off has now become a reality. What does this mean for a faith with deep roots in the middle class? Whereas parochial schools were the norm for most Catholic children a half-century ago, will there be a day when American Catholics become sharply divided among the haves and have-nots, with a private education being the wedge? I don’t know what the future holds for us, but right now is a time of great change for Catholic education and it remains to be seen how things will play out.

Raising two children in New York City has presented no shortage of challenges when it comes to selecting how they should be schooled; cost was a significant factor but so was belief and commitment to public education, and we were lucky enough to have landed in a district that was just beginning to see big improvement when my older child entered kindergarten. Over the years we’ve made (and continue to make) significant contributions, almost entirely in time volunteered; but these days, more and more fellow parents make significant contributions in treasure, and the effect is being felt in ways that do not always comport with my sense of what public education is supposed to mean. The calving off of some public schools into de facto private collectives funded by wealthy parent-teacher associations is to me a particularly troubling trend in public education.

Friends and fellow parishioners have made other, and understandable, choices in terms of educating their children – some selecting Catholic schools and others opting for well-known prestigious non-Catholic private schools, with prices topping $30,000 a year in some cases (and even higher in others). I can’t challenge their decisions; they’ve done what they feel is best in their situations, and having gone through it myself I’m aware of the difficulty of it, the weighing of variables and the sacrifices required. But it can make for interesting conversation around the dinner table. In trying to impart to our kids a sense of being attuned to the needs and differences of others, of the importance of the lived and experienced over the purchased and "consumed," the topic of their friends’ schooling sometimes comes up. Education – public, Catholic, non-Catholic-private – as an economic marker is something that even they are becoming aware of. 

The ‘Raising Kids Catholic’ symposium continues

We’ve just posted the latest piece in our symposium “Raising Kids Catholic.” Today’s installment is from Liam Callanan. An excerpt:

There are … obtuse dads like me, and families like mine, who face a blizzard of conflicting societal and doctrinal pressures. More plainly: There’s the Disney Channel, cell phones, e-books, and a thousand other modern diversions from a straightforward path to faith.

And then there’s the church, or rather its leaders, who I find sometimes get in the way of me bringing my family to God. This feels like a new phenomenon, but I know it’s not. I think, once again, about Matthew 19: the reason Jesus says “Let the little children come to me” is because moments before, some children had been brought forward “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them,” and “the disciples rebuked them.” Two thousand years later, some disciples are still at it.

You can read Liam’s whole story here. You can also go directly to our special topic page, where we’re featuring all of the contributions to the Raising Kids Catholic symposium in one place as they’re posted. Commenting is enabled on that page, so feel free to keep the conversation going as new installments go live. 

New stories now on the homepage

Now featured on the website, the editors on negotiating with Iran, and the first in our special series on raising kids Catholic (more on that below).

From the editorial “The Threat of Peace”:

Iran insists that its nuclear industry is intended only for peaceful purposes. But it would be irresponsible to take Iranian promises at face value. … Still, almost by definition, most efforts to avoid war involve dealing with dangerous and untrustworthy foes. Consequently, confidence-building steps are necessary. Led by Secretary of State John Kerry, the international community has proposed an interim agreement to test the regime’s real intentions…. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a vociferous opponent of any interim deal, claiming that if sanctions are lifted even temporarily it will be impossible to re-impose them. Netanyahu and some in Congress want the sanctions tightened further, arguing that only the harshest pressure can force the Iranians to make meaningful concessions. Given his previous objections to the administration’s Iran policy, Netanyahu’s new-found faith in sanctions is curious, to say the least. …

Diplomacy rarely succeeds unless each party offers the other a way to save face with hardliners at home. In that light, the sort of interim agreement Secretary Kerry is proposing seems worth the limited risks involved.

Also live, the first in our multipart series “Raising Catholic Kids,” in which we asked parents to discuss and reflect on their experiences in “rooting family in faith.” We’ll be posting new installments on a regular basis in coming days, and we’ll be packaging the series so that as new articles go live they’re collected all in one place. Featured today, J. Peter Nixon:

I have two children of my own now. Many parents react to perceived deficiencies in their own childhood by leaning violently in the other direction. I am no different. I have done everything in my power to give my children the deep roots in the Catholic tradition that I did not have. My wife and I have made the financial sacrifice to send our children to Catholic school, a sacrifice that will become all the more difficult as they enter (God willing!) the local Catholic high school. Both of us pursued graduate work in theology and we are deeply involved in a wonderful parish where we are active in a variety of ministries.

Aside from the investment in their education, I did not do most of these things for my children. I did them because they seemed at least a meager return for what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. But I have also tried to live my faith in a way that would make it truly attractive and credible to my children.

Every now and then I feel that it’s working.

Read the whole thing here, and remember to check back at the homepage as we post additional pieces. And as the series concludes, we’ll be featuring as an online exclusive some reflections by young people (who to some might still count as kids) on what they learned being raised in Catholic families. 

Throwback Thursday: Sr. Janet Mead’s gold record

If you were near a radio in the mid-seventies you probably heard a lot of Janet Mead, even if you didn’t necessarily know who Janet Mead was. Her “rock” recording “The Lord’s Prayer” was, as they say in the business, burning up the charts in the late winter and early spring of 1974, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100--during Holy Week, as it happened.

Peaking, but never really going away, and not just because the song embodied what the word “earworm” must have been coined to describe. It became a Sunday-morning staple on New York’s WOR, to which the knob on my parents’ car radio was permanently fixed. The song seemed stuck in heavy rotation—programmed to play repeatedly during the hours we’d likely be on our way to and from Mass—in the years between my communion and confirmation, a period that spanned three presidencies, three papacies, and, closer to home, the loyal service of three different Plymouth station wagons.

What I didn’t know then was that Janet Mead was Sister Janet Mead, of the Sisters of Mercy order in Australia, where she taught music at a pair of Catholic schools. Originally recorded as a B-side, “The Lord’s Prayer” ultimately went gold—selling more than two million copies in the U.S. (more than three million internationally).

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Murmuratio About Priestly Celibacy

When the Society of Jesus gathers its representatives to elect a new boss, part of the process is several days of "murmuratio," essentially water-cooler chat about who might be a good candidate. No electioneering is allowed, but this informal dialogue among the members is an important aspect of the election.

There seems to be underway a murmuratio of another sort. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Pope's Secretary of State has noted that celibacy is an open question: "Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church."

Absolutely true. And it immediately sparked sharp reaction from the right. Here's Jimmy Akin at The National Catholic Register, insisting that nothing significant was said and we should all just ignore it: "What significance does this actually have? Not much. There is, actually, nothing new here. The archbishop is correct in stating that clerical celibacy is not a dogma."

Parolin did go on in the same interview (this from John Allen at NCR,) both to shore up the tradition of priestly celibacy, but also to make this intriguing comment:

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The availability of prayer

Just a dumbass midnight thought, but I’ve been thinking, lately, of the horrifying availability of prayer.  Does no one else have this dread, from time to time, of the offhand remarks we make to God?  Our assurance that He knows us through and through, that He loves us intimately, emboldens us—or at least, emboldens me, occasionally, to assume that He also agrees with my prejudices and predispositions.  So that when this fatuous archbishop, or that overstimulated commentator, pronounces on some issue of the day, I can recline on the breast of the Boss, smirking at how much He and I know what malarkey this all is.  Of course, the Gospel is replete with all sorts of correctives, but every once in a while, that one from Luke 13:25, “I do not know where you are from” really smacks me, even in the wake of a New York Times editorial.

Being comfortable

Over at Our Sunday Visitor, my friend Greg Erlandson has posted a thought-provoking column, entitled Parish the Thought, which raises the question of where one should go to Mass: One’s geographical parish, or a parish where one is “comfortable.”

 

I think the question is an important one, but it occurs to me that I’m fairly uncomfortable most of the time, and particularly uncomfortable at Mass.  I live in an area (within a mile of the campus of the University of Notre Dame) where Mass is celebrated frequently and with widely variegated presiders, all sorts of liturgical quirks and preferences, surrounded by every imaginable kind of congregation.  In my geographical parish, there is a daily “red-eye” Mass at 6:45 a.m. where we all tend to mumble and make minimal eye contact, exchanging the sign of peace sincerely but perfunctorily.  The daily campus Mass is “high church” enough to delight any Anglican, and the cantor always leads us at a pitch which forces churchgoers like me to choose between falsetto and basso profundo.  It’s often difficult to remember the homilies given there.  Most Sundays, my wife and I go to Mass at the chapel of Holy Cross College, where there is usually no music and usually a good and nourishing homily.  Most of our fellow congregants there are active members of other parishes, but refugees from their more elaborate Sunday liturgies.

 

Greg concludes that “a parish isn’t about ‘how good it makes me feel.’ It is about me getting outside of myself and caring about others who are not like me at all, yet are brothers and sisters in Christ. For those defending geography, the pick and choosers risk making the Mass an entertainment that we vote for with our presence, rather than a miracle we are privileged to share.”  I agree, mostly, but it seems to me (and I pick and choose even more widely than most Catholics are able to) that it’s not necessarily “entertainment” value that we nomadic Catholics are pursuing.  The Mass is indeed a miracle we are privileged to share, but if we are to behold and share that miracle, might it not be the case that we know some venues to be less distracting than others?

Waiting for Fr. Paolo

It's been almost two weeks since Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit leader of interreligious peacebuilding in Syria, has vanished. It's been more than one week since the date after which he told his friends "to raise the alarm" if they had not heard from him. They -- and we -- are still waiting.

The coverage of his disapperance has been relatively widespread. John Allen's Friday column led with the story, tying it to the previous kidnappings of the Syrian Orthodox bishop and Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo. It even made the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. But no one seems to know what, if anything, can be done.

I only met Fr. Paolo once, sharing a meal, when he visited Fordham University in 2011. I obviously can't claim him has a friend. But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.

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New issue is live

Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.

Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.

New stories on the homepage

Three new stories on the homepage today, including a piece by the editors on the actions of Eric Snowden and their implications for privacy and national security:

It is axiomatic that fighting clandestine terrorist groups requires clandestine methods. Sources and allies must be protected; in preemptive actions the element of surprise must be preserved. Secrets about ongoing investigations cannot be compromised without jeopardizing counterterrorism efforts. It is harder to justify keeping such details secret after the fact. Judgments about the trade-offs between privacy and safety cannot be made unless the American people know what the government has done in our name. Even if everything the government does to combat terrorism is technically legal, not everything legal is prudent, wise, or morally justified.

As a nation, we rely on a system of checks and balances to prevent an excessive concentration of state power. Those checks and balances are strained to the breaking point during times of war, and especially during a war as ill-defined and open-ended as the fight against terrorism. Congress is notoriously pusillanimous when it comes to national-security issues. The courts, meanwhile, are loath to intervene, preferring to leave the conduct of “war” to the other two branches. The executive rarely passes up an opportunity to expand its war-making powers. The result is the steady accumulation of influence by the nation’s security agencies. As political philosopher and former Clinton administration official William A. Galston recently observed, “It may be true that as currently staffed and administered, the new institutions of surveillance do not threaten our liberties. It is also true that in the wrong hands, they would make it much easier to do so.”

Also, E. J. Dionne Jr. comments on the political activism of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing in light of this week’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act:

Whenever conservatives on the court have had the opportunity to tilt the playing field toward their own side, they have done so. And in other recent cases, the court has weakened the capacity of Americans to take on corporate power. The conservative majority seems determined to bring us back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

The voting rights decision should be seen as following a pattern set by the rulings in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Citizens United in 2010.

Bush v. Gore had the effect of installing the conservatives’ choice in the White House and allowed him to influence the court’s subsequent direction with his appointments of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Citizens United swept aside a tradition going back to the Progressive Era -- and to the Founders’ deep concern over political corruption -- by vastly increasing the power of corporate and monied interests in the electoral sphere.

Tuesday’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling will make it far more difficult for African-Americans to challenge unfair electoral and districting practices. For many states, it will be a Magna Carta to make voting more difficult if they wish to.

The Constitution, through the 14th and 15th Amendments, gives Congress a strong mandate to offer federal redress against discriminatory and regressive actions by state and local governments. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her scalding but very precise dissent, “a governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”

Finally, Eve Tushnet writes on the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Frances Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites:

This is an opera of questions. The questions are spiritual and psychological rather than historical. Dialogues isn’t especially interested in the French Revolution as such…. [F]or the most part you could set Dialogues in the Roman Empire under Diocletian and its central concerns would be the same. What does it mean to die well? Are there bad ways to be a martyr for Christ? If you die for God, does that cancel out all your prior weakness and irresolution? And conversely, if you die in fear and anguish, is that the final verdict on your life despite all the courage you showed in better days?

Featured on the homepage

We've been running some good web-exclusive content on the homepage. Just posted: "Catholics Are Different," a special package highlighting the writing of Andrew M. Greeley in Commonweal, where over the course of six decades his work appeared. And, if you haven't already, check out Nicholas P. Cafardi's piece on the apparent unwillingness of some bishops to follow their own sexual-abuse reforms. Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. examines a potentially unbreachable gap between libertarian theory and libertarian practice.