Nicholas Clifford’s profile of Simon Leys in the latest issue of Commonweal mentions the late Sinologist’s interest in a revolutionary Chinese writer named Lu Xun (1881-1936). During the Cultural Revolution, Leys sought to defend Lu Xun’s legacy from the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party—and intellectuals in the West—to appropriate him as a Maoist icon. Although Lu Xun maintained left wing and patriotic commitments throughout his career, he never joined the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself allegedly admitted that Lu Xun would “either have gone silent, or gone to prison” if he lived through the anti-dissident campaigns of the 1950s.
It’s a good thing that the Cultural Revolution-era debate on Lu Xun has settled on Simon Leys’s terms. The problem, however, is that his legacy is now under attack by a different kind of sanitizing exaltation. Gloria Davies, author of a recent biography on Lu Xun, writes that post-Maoist scholarship has often reduced his revolutionary polemics to “an example of mere intellectual factionalism.” So I’ll take Clifford’s essay on Simon Leys as an opportunity to ask: Who was Lu Xun and why should we know him better?
The social decay that marked late-imperial China played out on a microcosmic level in Lu Xun’s family. He was born into a gentry-class family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, but his grandfather’s imprisonment for bribery and his father’s failing health laid a heavy burned on the family finances. It seems hardly shocking, then, that Lu Xun (whose given name was Zhou Shuren) abandoned the imperial examination system—the traditional path to success in China for an ambitious young man—that his forbears had followed.Read more
The Vatican’s “invitation” to Bernie Sanders to speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS) on Friday has sparked a range of reactions. There are those who say it’s irresponsible for Sanders to travel right after his Thursday night debate with Hillary Clinton to give a ten-minute talk in Rome, just four days before the New York primary. There are those who see in it an attempt by the (male) Catholic establishment to block the election of a woman to the White House. Some see it as an endorsement of “the Jewish progressive agenda,” others as a direct attempt by Francis to advance a leftist agenda in U.S. politics.
None of this is true, so it’s not worth the time to dispute the accusations (except the one about Francis meddling in U.S. politics; we’ll get to that). But this comedy of errors does reveal something interesting about Francis’s Vatican and its politics.
It’s clear by now that the invitation, word of which emerged April 8, didn’t come from Pope Francis, or from the Secretariat of State, or from anyone who usually invites political leaders or accepts requests for audiences. It came instead from Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (originally from Argentina), chancellor of PASS. He bypassed Margaret Archer, its president, who was not shy in making public her surprise, saying it was a “monumental discourtesy” for Sanders to ask for an invitation without going through her office. Bishop Sorondo responded that Archer was aware of the invitation, in effect accusing her of lying.
At some point over the weekend of April 8, somebody in the Vatican who is close to Pope Francis was told of the potential negative consequences of letting an American presidential candidate speak at the conference–a candidate who by that time had claimed on MSNBC that the invitation had come “from the Vatican” and who on ABC’s “The View” confirmed that the invitation had come from Francis, and that he would be meeting with the pope.
It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have issued such an invitation just as Amoris Laetitia was being released; also unlikely is that it would risk a Sanders visit distracting from Francis’s meeting with refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16. But at this point it was too late for the Vatican to disinvite him; Sanders had announced his visit publicly.
What is not unimaginable is that the Vatican did its best to dissuade Sanders from coming by scheduling him to speak at 4 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. Eastern) on Friday, which would be just hours after the end of his Thursday night debate in Brooklyn. If it was meant as a signal—“please don’t come”—it either wasn’t received by the Sanders team, or wasn’t interpreted as such. Next, the Vatican tried to ignore Sanders and downplayed the pending visit; over the course of several press conferences, Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, never once mentioned Sanders. Only today (April 14) did he do so, officially announcing that Francis would not be meeting with the candidate.
We will see what actually happens in Rome on Friday. But for now, it’s worth considering the following.Read more
This past weekend Paul Cizek and Paul Pasquesi, both doctoral students in the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity area of the Theology Department at Marquette University, hosted a superb conference, “Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: In Memory of Rev. Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.” The conference was a reflection on the work of Lúcás who died of heart failure last May while on the Marquette faculty. The conference title comes from Lúcás’ second book Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions (Paulist, 2013).
The Conference began with papers by two of his Marquette Colleagues, Joseph Ogbonnaya and John Thiede, S.J., commenting on Lúcás’ cross-cultural approach to biblical ethics and how that enhances their work in African and Latin American theology respectively. Following them, D. Glenn Butner, with his newly minted doctorate and Chris Gooding, another doctoral student looked at how Lúcás’ methodology in virtue ethics helped them in their work. They emphasized Lúcás’s proposal of the four key components that virtue ethics provides for the right understanding and application of scripture: character formation, the shaping of both personal and communal identities, the practices and habits that can accomplish this, and the worthy exemplars that live the virtues. Gooding’s essay was particularly interesting in suggesting that, by using Lúcás’ method, the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16: 1-15) should be read as an act of “slave resistance.”Read more
There’s a legal distinction between “speech” and “hate speech”—with the latter recognizing that words can indeed have consequences, whether uttered in ordinary public gatherings or during heated political campaigns. Language that encourages violence targeted at specific groups of people crosses a line. Correlation may not be causation, but it’s interesting to look at some of the comments Donald Trump has made on the stump and the incidents that have followed those remarks.
In June 2015 when Trump kicked off his candidacy for president he said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
In August 2015, two brothers on their way home from a baseball game beat and urinated on a homeless fifty-eight-year-old Mexican immigrant who was sleeping outside a Boston T station. After they were arrested, one said, “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.”
On November 22, 2015, Trump claimed that on 9/11 “thousands and thousands of people in Jersey City were cheering” when the towers of the World Trade Center came down. In Twin Falls, Idaho on December 7, 2015, the Islamic Center of Twin Falls was vandalized with the words “Hunt Camp,” the nickname of an internment camp in Idaho for Japanese-Americans during World War II. That same day: Twenty-five year old Matthew William Gust threw a Molotov cocktail into a Somali-owned coffee house in Grand Forks, North Dakota, causing $90,000 in damages; a caretaker at the Al Aqsa Islamic Society in northern Philadelphia found a severed pig’s head on the center’s doorstep; and a shopkeeper in Queens, New York, said he was attacked and beaten by a customer who said, “I’ll kill Muslims.” On December 8, officials at a mosque in Jersey City reported receiving a letter, citing Trump’s comments about Jersey City celebrations, calling Muslims “evil” and telling them to “go back to the desert.” That same day in Seattle a sixteen-year-old Somali-born boy was severely beaten, thrown from a sixth-story window, and died; his family claims his attackers were from Seattle Central College. On December 11, in Coachella, California, a mosque was firebombed while people were inside. At one of Trump’s rallies on December 14, a supporter onstage told a story about his child’s death at the hands of an undocumented immigrant. A Black Lives Matter protester interrupted, shouting “That’s why we need gun control!” As he was being removed from the audience, another supported yelled for someone to “light the motherf***er on fire.”
On March 5, 2016, a mother received a call from her son’s third-grade teacher to say he was taunted by two of his classmates who pointed out the “immigrants” in the classroom and "who would be sent 'home' when Trump becomes president." On March 10 in North Carolina, after being charged with assault for punching a protester in the mouth as he exited the rally, Trump supporter John McGraw said “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him." Video shows that after McGraw punched the protester, the police then threw the protester on the ground and surrounded him while McGraw returned to his seat. Trump was charged with but not convicted of inciting a riot. And on March 14, a Muslim student from Wichita State University reported that he and his friend (who is Hispanic) were attacked by a motorcyclist at a gas station who yelled “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “Make America great again! You guys are the losers! You guys, we’ll throw you over the wall!” (There is a surveillance tape.)
The candidate is currently stumping in New York, and on Thursday April 14 he has controversial plans to speak at a Suffolk County GOP fundraising event in Patchogue, New York, blocks from where in 2008 a gang of teenagers who frequently hunted and assaulted Latino immigrants murdered an Ecuadoran man named Marcelo Lucero. From there he will head to Manhattan and attend the New York State Republican Gala as a special guest. Protesters plan to be on hand.
Americans should be mindful of the right of candidates to speak. But does what seems like a cause-and-effect pattern over many months make understandable the actions of those who find incitements to violence and prejudicial rule something not only worth standing up to, but necessary to stand up to—especially when lives are being put at stake?
'Prophecy Without Contempt': Watch Cathleen Kaveny, Peter Steinfels & Bishop Robert McElroy in Conversation
On Monday night in New York, Commonweal hosted “Prophecy Without Contempt,” a panel on religious discourse in the public square. Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, and former Commonweal editor and longtime contributor Peter Steinfels took up the question: Can religious speech bring dialogue and reconciliation, instead of division and resentment? Many people joined us in person for the lively and informative discussion that unfolded, and many more streamed the event live. If you weren’t able to be with us, or if you want to watch the discussion again, you can do so here. And feel free to keep the conversation going in comments.
A theologian can be very picky about the architectural style of churches, especially when the theologian (like me) was born and raised in Italy. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in Brazil, where I visited the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, named after one of the most famous architects of our time. Inside there’s a temporary exhibition on Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985), who designed the Architecture and Urbanism College, University of Sao Paulo (known as FAUUSP) in 1969. Writing of the building in 1984, Artigas said it “refines the holy ideals of the time: I thought of it as the spatialization of democracy in worthy spaces, without entrance doors, because I wanted it as a temple where all activities are lawful.”
Among the interesting things I discovered was the relationship of leftist (Communist, in fact) intellectuals like Niemeyer and Artigas with the Catholic Church in Brazil. It was a relationship that, for the more famous Niemeyer, went beyond his work on the Brasilia cathedral (built between 1958 and 1970) and the Church of St. Francis in Belo Horizonte (which was completed in 1943 but not consecrated until 1959: archbishop Antonio dos Santos Cabral proclaimed the church “unfit for religious purposes”). Niemeyer also had had many exchanges with Paulo Freire, founder of critical pedagogy and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The architecture of Niemeyer and Artigas was deeply embedded in the shift of Latin American Catholicism from a status quo church—pillar of a non-democratic and authoritarian system—to one both politically and theologically instrumental in the turn toward a non-authoritarian and democratic system.Read more
Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”
Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.
The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”Read more
When Bernie Sanders released the details of his “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare proposal ahead of the Democratic debate last week, the plan was widely panned by journalists and pundits as an unserious, pie-in-the-sky idea that could never possibly see the light of day. But it was perhaps even more audacious than many of its critics realized: in contrast to the Affordable Care Act, whose drafters deliberately excluded undocumented immigrants from being eligible for coverage in order to avoid stepping into an even bigger political minefield than the one they were already in, Sanders’ policy advisor Warren Gunnels confirmed to reporters that the senator envisions an expanded Medicare being open to at least some of those living in the country illegally.
This is almost certainly one of the boldest pro-immigrant positions espoused by a major party candidate in recent history. A casual observer might reasonably infer from his willingness to take such a stand that Sanders must be the clear favorite of those who lobby on behalf of immigrant rights. Yet throughout the campaign, he has been dogged by criticism of his immigration record – from the left.Read more
Every Christmas Eve since 1949 the Wall Street Journal has been publishing the same editorial. (The Journal doesn’t publish on December 25, the stock exchange being closed.) Obviously the editors must be pretty proud of it. It’s also one of my favorites. From year to year the words are the same but the meaning changes with the times. In the last few years its message has been clear: Jesus came to save us from government regulation.
That was probably not the major point at the moment of intensifying Cold War when the editorial first appeared. The dangerous allure of Friedrich Hayek’s “road to serfdom” was merely implied. But the Journal readers of 1949, who would have spontaneously understood Caesar to be operating out of the Kremlin, have been replaced by the readers of 2015, daily instructed that today’s Caesar operates from the White House and the federal bureaucracies.
Entitled “In Hoc Anno Domini,” the editorial describes the world at the moment of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion: a world “in bondage,” with but one state and one master, his oppressive power maintained through legions and executioners, persecution of free thought, and enslavement of nations. “Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Having begun with Saul, the editorial ends with Paul: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty where with Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
There are a number of historical and scriptural oddities about “In Hoc Anno Domini.”Read more
I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.
Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.Read more
Imagine you’re a woman in your late twenties with a job at a multinational software company. You play soccer as a hobby and come home after a game one night to find you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment. It’s around 11:15 by the time the locksmith has let you in, and you’re taking off your shoes when you hear a voice and a barking dog near your front porch. You go to the window, pull back the blinds, and see a man pointing a gun at you. You step back from the window and hear the man say, “Come outside with your hands up!” What do you do next?
Correctly assuming it was the police who ordered her outside, Fay Wells of Santa Monica, California, obeyed. Writing in the Washington Post about the September 6 incident, Wells describes how officers commanded her down from her porch at gunpoint without answering her repeatedly asked question: “What’s going on?” Only after they searched her apartment did officers explain why they were there. But none of them could give Wells, who is African American, a satisfactory explanation as to why there were nineteen of them, and they assured her it had nothing to do with race. “The fact is,” she later told NPR’s Ari Shapiro “the first time that they interacted with me, they had guns drawn, which just felt incredibly aggressive and not like they were trying to assess the situation.”
Shortly after Wells's piece appeared in the Post, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released a statement on the incident, affirming the claims Wells made—yes, the department sent nineteen police officers and a K-9 to investigate a 9-1-1 caller’s claim that a Latino man and two girls, “possibly Hispanic” were attempting a break-in “using tools”—and defending that protocol. “In smaller communities, like Santa Monica,” Seabrooks explained “a response of this type is not uncommon.”
Unfortunately, in incidents involving women of color, such responses by law enforcement seem to have become common in recent months, with police acting aggressively in non-criminal, non-confrontational encounters and escalating them into violent ones.
Last July, twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland, who after refusing to put out her cigarette in the course of a Texas traffic stop was pulled from her car, threatened with a Taser ("I'm going to light you up," Trooper Brian Encina was recorded on dashboard-camera telling her), arrested without being told why, and pushed face-first into the grass. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after the stop; her death, officially ruled a suicide, is currently being considered by a grand jury. The month before that, McKinney, Texas, officer Eric Casebolt, responding to reports of an unruly pool party, was videotaped grabbing fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton by the hair, throwing her to the ground, sticking his knee into her back, and shoving her into the grass, yelling “on your face!” —then pulling his gun on other teens. And in October, video captured Richland County, South Carolina, deputy Ben Fields flipping a slumped high school student out of her desk, wrestling her to the ground, then dragging her across the floor of the classroom.
As a white woman it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an interaction with police officers like these, or the one that Fay Wells describes. I’m more likely to be assumed as a victim of a burglary than a burglar. It’s hard to believe that an officer who hadn’t identified himself would continue to point a gun at me after I’d put my hands up and obediently followed his order. In fact, if I'm honest, I reflexively hesitate to attribute aggressive response and escalation by police offices to race at all—because it's easy for me to deny. And I’m not alone. A survey by McClatchy-Marist from December 2014 showed 50 percent of whites have “a great deal of confidence in the police to gain the trust of those they serve” compared with only 22 percent of African Americans.
Having been on the receiving end of an aggressive and unnecessarily escalated response has permanently changed how Fay Wells feels about the criminal justice system despite assurances from the Santa Monica police that they only intended to keep her safe.
The Santa Monica police department is currently reviewing what happened at Wells's home. Chief Seabrook says the incident is “reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink.” Others might see it as indicative of a different pattern, in which disproportionate response by police—operating with wide discretion and little accountability—is actually putting certain women at much greater risk.
Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”
Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.
Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is called “privilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:
When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.
Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.
Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.
This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).
Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.
But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.
But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.Read more
Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”
Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.
Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.Read more
The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)
Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:
When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”
To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.Read more
Just to a quick note to mention two interesting new books on Catholic social teaching on the shelves. The first is by Daniel Schwindt, and is titled Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis - the subtitle is “Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’.” I believe Daniel’s is the first attempt to incorporate Pope Francis’s vital contribution into a general treatise on the social doctrine—the publication date was June 19, a day after the encyclical was published! (Full disclosure: Daniel edited a book earlier this year called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis; an Anthology of Visions for the Future, and I contribute a chapter.)
The second book to cross my desk is the latest by Angus Sibley, entitled Catholic Economics: Alternatives to the Jungle. It was published too late to include insights from Laudato Si’, but Sibley is always worth reading. I especially enjoyed his last book: The Poisoned Spring of Economic Libertarianism.
Bravo to both authors, and let’s hope we are entering a new springtime for authentic Catholic social teaching!
At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”
The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?
“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.
Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.
In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?Read more
Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.
In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."
The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.
Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.
In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”
Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:
An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”
The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.
It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.
The whole thing is worth a read.
In a sprawling forty-five-minute address to the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis again urged world leaders to take practical measures to protect the environment, avoid armed conflict, and protect the most vulnerable.
After “reaffirming the importance” of the UN in working to promote justice and human rights,” the pope prodded the assembly to pay attention to the “victims of power badly exercised”: the environment and the “ranks of the excluded.” He warned against “false rights” presented by “the world”—and then he asserted a new one: “a true ‘right of the environment’ [derecho del ambiente, in the original Spanish] does exist,” Francis said. That is a very big deal.
Before the publication of Laudato si’, there had been some speculation about whether the encyclical would speak of the environment itself as having rights. After Francis told journalists that human beings had lorded their power over nature Robin Darling Young asked:
Was he really implying that created nature—the environment—has rights of its own? Such a view on the part of the pope would be a significant development in Catholic thinking about the inherent worth of creation apart from the humans who dominate it. We shall soon find out if he meant it.
It sounds like he did.Read more
Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.
Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.
Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where
the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.
And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has
acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.
So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.
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