“I have scoured the Internet,” a friend emailed me when Marilynne Robinson’s Lila had just been released, “and found not one critical or negative review of Marilynne Robinson.” Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture was a mild exception to that rule, while noting how rare qualms with Robinson’s work really are. With the subtitle “A Dissenting View,” the review begins, “One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson.” Though it lost out on a National Book Award to Phil Kay's Redeployment, Robinson's novel was recently nominated for a National Books Critics Circle award.
Beyond her formidable literary talent (of which there is much to say, and I don't intend to detract from attention to it), I think there is another reason Robinson is so revered. In short: She refuses the categories which characterize how we publically interpret experiences, and it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone who is looking for wisdom on that score. There was a moment during the question period of Marilynne Robinson’s lecture at Yale Divinity School this winter that illustrated this well.
Robinson’s dense and subtle lecture was an argument against scientific positivism which reduces emotions and affective states to merely something you can quantify—just areas of brain activity lighting up on scans. This interest has animated her projects all long; she’s written about it in many essays, and in the pages of Commonweal. This has obvious implications for understanding how faith works, but it’s a bigger statement about relating to the self, our affective states, and our ability to see these states as distinct from other modes of understanding.Read more
Earlier this month I participated in an all-day symposium on the Catholic press at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, otherwise known as Dunwoodie. Our topic was “In Service of the Word: The Catholic Media in the New Evangelization.” I was one of the featured panelists, along with the editors of America, First Things, the National Catholic Register, and U.S. Catholic. Matt Malone, America’s editor, organized the event in collaboration with the seminary. Happily, he also brought James Martin, SJ, along to moderate an afternoon discussion among the panelists.
Dunwoodie is not the easiest place to get to, so the audience was sparse, but Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, the rector of the seminary, was an exceedingly gracious host. In the morning session, all the panelists were asked to explain how they understand the mission of their magazine, and what their estimation was of the challenges and opportunities facing the Catholic press today. For example, America sees itself explicitly as a ministry, while Commonweal does not. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, was unapologetic about his magazine’s “combative” approach to issues and “conservative” philosophy. Meinrad Scherer-Emunds emphasized that U.S. Catholic, a ministry of the Claretians, is written for “ordinary” Catholics, not academics. Five-dollar words are ruthlessly expunged from its pages. National Catholic Register editor Jeanette Demelo spoke of the tension she has to navigate between the bishops’ views on immigration and the reactions of her very conservative readers. Not surprisingly, all the editors agreed that it is a good thing that a wide a spectrum of views is available in the Catholic press.
As we were sitting down for lunch, a woman from the audience came up to me to offer some friendly advice. As best I can remember, she said something along the following lines: “At some point, you know, you really have to pick a side. Otherwise it just gets boring.” I took this as a critique of Commonweal’s tendency to present a variety of views in our pages and where possible to seek compromise solutions to problems. Sometimes we criticize the church and defend certain aspects of the secular culture; other times we criticize the secular culture while defending the church. In my opening remarks, I quoted from a statement written by Commonweal’s editors in the early 1950s. In it the editors explained why the magazine tried to avoid overt preaching or any pretension to “priestly” authority. “We have been asked from time to time to spell out Commonweal’s political philosophy,” they wrote. “It is not an easy thing to do, because the magazine does not commit itself to any ism, party-line, or partisan loyalty…. If it can be said that Commonweal operates according to any political dogma, it is the right to take a fresh look at things periodically, to make all judgments tentative, and to consider the total political situation.”
So, I’m sure it didn’t surprise the woman when I replied to her remark by saying, “But what if you can’t decide which side you’re on?”
The conversation ended rather abruptly there.
I suspect my interlocutor took my reply as an example of precisely what she was complaining about. I understand her impatience, but on any number of contested issues I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. On whether the United States should torture prisoners, I know. On whether same-sex marriage will further undermine the marriage culture and the important connection between sex, procreation, and family life, I’m just not sure. On whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be readmitted to the sacraments in certain circumstances, I think I know the answer, but I want to hear more arguments for why that might be a mistake. I feel the same way about the possible consequences ordaining women might have for church unity as well as on the gender symbolism that pervades Catholicism. (I'm only speaking for myself here. The magazine's positions on such questions are arrived at collaboratively.) On a host of questions, I believe Catholics have a lot more thinking and questioning to do. I don’t want these debates to be shut down prematurely from either side, and I suspect the answers we finally arrive at in a decade or two or three from now will be a little different from the alternatives now on offer. Yes, eventually one must pick a side, but deciding a question too early can be as much of an error as deciding it wrongly. I think Cardinal Newman said something like that somewhere, didn’t he?
There’s a lot of interesting data in a new Pew report detailing the drop of self-identified Catholics across Latin America, beginning with how precipitous the decline has been. While 84 percent of adults interviewed report they were raised Catholic, only 69 percent currently identify as Catholic, meaning, as the New York Times Upshot summarizes, “there has been a 15-percentage-point drop-off in one generation.”
Why interesting, and not, say, startling, is that no one who’s been paying attention can really be surprised by the findings, yet they also shed new light on the shift in a region where up to the 1970s more than 90 percent of the population identified as Catholic.Read more
A philosopher of otherwise modest stature once made the useful point that in life it's important to make a little effort once in a while: go out for a movie, walk instead of drive. Trying not to come to Mass with a cup of coffee may or may not meet the standard, but now and then someone really does show up in the third pew straight from the ubiquitous Starbucks. Could this person have made time to finish earlier, or simply held out until later?
While the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the short line of the material world aims hard at convenience—the minimizing of the effort required to get something. From a month’s journey to a day’s drive to within an arm’s reach, from the touch of a finger to the click of the mouse and soon maybe the blink of an eye, the distance, in space and time, between “wish” and “fulfillment” has shrunk to nearly nothing. That’s news to no one but whether everyone should see it as good news is another question. Do we lose something when getting something is so easy? And might it be bad news if effort were reduced so much (and the definition of “convenience” stretched so far) that we got things we probably wouldn't wish for in the first place?
Sue Halpern in her current New York Review of Books piece provides an answer, and it's implicit in the title: “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet.” She details the emergence of what the tech industry and its missionaries in consulting and venture capital are calling the Internet of Things (IoT) or, more all-encompassing by some, the Internet of Everything. If you’re thinking Facebook or satellite navigation or personalized recommendations on Amazon, you’re not being nearly “visionary” enough.Read more
Last week, Univision released a survey of twelve thousand Catholics in a dozen countries across five continents. The idea occurred to them after the Vatican asked the world's bishops conferences to find out what their people think about a range of social issues and report back. But, as the Univision survey's executive summary notes, "the papal questionnaire is not an opinion-gathering instrument." True, it's not exactly reader-friendly (several dioceses chose to adapt it in order to make it more intelligible to the people whose views it was designed to gather). Nor were its results easy to compile. So Univision sponsored a large-scale survey that would adhere to contemporary standards of data collection, and allow us to say with a measure of confidence: This what the world's Catholics think now.
The results won't shock you. (The German and Swiss bishops certainly weren't surprised.) They represent "an alarming trend for the Vatican," because the "majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives," according to Bendixen and Amandi International--the communications firm that conducted the study. (It's been published a few ways: as an interactive feature, a slideshow, and an executive summary--which explains the survey's methodology.)
The country-by-country breakdown also holds few surprises. Generally speaking, the more developed a country is, the less likely its Catholics are to fully agree with certain church teachings. So, while a significant majority of U.S. Catholics (59 percent) say that women should be ordained priests, 81 percent of Ugandan Catholics disagree (the breakdown is similar on the question of married priests). Of course huge majorities of American Catholics (88 percent) have no problem with the use of artificial contraception. Ninety-four percent of French Catholics support the use of contraceptives--edging out Brazil's 93 percent to take the top spot in that category. And when it comes to divorce, the percentages line up similarly: 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that being divorced and remarried outside the church should not bar one from receiving Communion, while 72 percent of Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo agree with that church teaching. On gay marriage, most Catholics agree with their bishops: about 40 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose it, compared with 99 percent of Catholic Africans.
The abortion results are more interesting.Read more
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.
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
You’ve read installments in our series on raising Catholic kids. Now you can read responses from kids. Well, young people who were kids not so long ago and who grew up in homes where faith was a part of their lives. We’ve collected their stories on our special topic page, “Kids, Raised Catholic,” which you can find here.
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.
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.
When I saw that Russell D. Moore had written a long piece about the so-called Evangelical “retreat” from American politics and culture wars, I was elated.
I am updating a syllabus for a course in religion and American politics, and I hoped this would be the perfect fresh take to round out our coverage of Evangelicalism. Certainly the media-savvy and next-generation Moore, the newish President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, would help my students understand the movement better than when they read speeches by his predecessor, Richard Land.
In short, I was primed for this essay.
Sadly, it is not assignable. This 4000-word feature, authored by the most prominent official of the Southern Baptists, is composed almost entirely of straw men.Read more
Today an appeals court in Malaysia delivered a major setback to the religious freedom of Christians. A Catholic newspaper, the Herald, may not use the word "Allah" to refer to God.
Christians in the Western hemisphere might be confused by the headlines. The ruling is not about Christians' referring to the God worshipped by Muslims, but rather about what Christians may call the God they themselves worship. Catholics in Malaysia, as in many other countries, call God by the word "Allah."
Arabic-speaking Christians do so, as do Arabic-speaking Jews. The word sounds almost exactly like the way Aramaic-speaking Jesus would have pronounced it.
The unanimous decision by three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court that allowed the Malay-language version of the newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah -- as many Christians in Malaysia say has been the case for centuries.
"The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling. "The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community." ...
Lawyers for the Catholic paper had argued that the word Allah predated Islam and had been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia's part of Borneo island for centuries.
They say they will appeal against Monday's decision to Malaysia's highest court.
"The nation must protect and support the rights of the minority," said Father Lawrence Andrew, the founding editor of the Herald. "God is an integral part of every religion."
Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world continue to use the word without opposition from Islamic authorities. Churches in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have said they will continue to use the word regardless of the ruling.
The defendants fear that the decision will also apply to other Christian publications in Bahasa Malaysia. This could end up being the most important religious liberty story of the year, with wide-ranging implications for religious pluralism in southeast Asia. At issue are three of the minority rights at the very core of modern rights-based polities: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.Read more
A deserter from the culture wars and no big fan of Justice Antonin Scalia, I nevertheless was struck by the derision he was able (and, doubtless, delighted) to provoke a few days ago by asserting, in a much ballyhooed New York Magazine interview, his belief that the Devil is real. No less provocatively, another famous interviewee, Pope Francis, in his homily for today's Mass, warns his hearers not to be naïve about this, and to be on guard.
Some things are true, even if Justice Scalia says them.
Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in today’s New York Times, about a Tennessee judge who has forbidden his parents to name a baby boy “Messiah,” reminds me of how agreeable it was to think that whenever my favorite atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, signed a check or autographed a book about how religion poisoned everything, he was, whether he wanted to or not, extolling the privilege of a human being to bear Christ into the world; how the uttering of my own first name rebukes the Devil, or any blasphemer; how the before the name of the Guatemalan guy who mows my next door neighbor’s lawn every knee must bow and every tongue proclaim that Jesus is Lord. (To say nothing of my old Lebanese buddy, a Moselm whose nickname was “Mo.”)
To pray without ceasing is an imperative of our faith, and it’s marvelous that even the names we are given, the names we use, can help us out with that, and can, at the very least, join the litany of the saints. No simpleton judge, no tone-deaf civil libertarian, no court of law can do a thing about that. That’s an agreeable thought, too.
Be it resolved:
Why don’t we borrow from real estate and create a marital lease? Instead of wedlock, a “wedlease.”
Here’s how a marital lease could work: Two people commit themselves to marriage for a period of years — one year, five years, 10 years, whatever term suits them. The marital lease could be renewed at the end of the term however many times a couple likes. It could end up lasting a lifetime if the relationship is good and worth continuing. But if the relationship is bad, the couple could go their separate ways at the end of the term. The messiness of divorce is avoided and the end can be as simple as vacating a rental unit.
A wedlease could also imitate a real-estate lease through the use of security deposits. Each spouse could deposit a sum of money with an independent third party to ensure compliance with the wedlease. A further step could be to authorize the third party to arbitrate disputes between the spouses.
O brave new world that has such leases in it!
Further details here.