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Can Hope Combat Despair (and Denial) on Climate Change?

With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.

“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.

For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.

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Bringing Bernie Back Home

The other day, as I was heading home to my apartment in Washington Heights—a small, somewhat close-knit neighborhood, geographically isolated from the tourism and crowds generally associated with Manhattan—I encountered a young man and woman with clipboards, gently trying to intercept passersby. "Hey," the man made eye contact, "have you heard about Bernie Sanders?" "Yeah,” I said, giving a thumbs-up and walking on, proud I'd been able to answer them in the affirmative. But they both lunged toward me, and started speaking very quickly. "Awesome! Are you registered? Do you know about our group? Are you interested in participating in our events? Do you want to volunteer?"

Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders currently doesn't have a New York City campaign office because, as I was to learn in the course of my encounter, he "didn't think people would like him this much." And so groups like the one I ended up learning about that day—Washington Heights for Bernie Sanders (they call themselves Bernie WaHi)—are getting ready for when he sets one up.

"We realized that the campaign didn’t have the structure yet in New York or as much funding as some other candidates,” said Adam Masser, one of three Sanders organizers who facilitate events and volunteer assignments in Northern Manhattan. Masser and his friends saw a "real opportunity to get the word out on behalf of Bernie and start organizing." So they started inviting their friends, and then their neighbors, to mobilize fellow Bernie supporters while also cultivating new ones.

Still a problem for Bernie at the moment is name recognition: “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t register with the same immediacy that “Hillary Clinton” does. So Bernie WaHi will focus on that, while also hosting more events and recruiting more volunteers. Voter registration is also part of the plan: Supporters are seeking to sign up people who’ve never voted, and to get registered Independent and Green Party voters to register as Democrats before the October 9 deadline.

Bernie WaHi takes its name from Washington Heights, but it covers a wider geographic area that includes Northern Manhattan, Harlem, Inwood, and the South Bronx—all bordering neighborhoods. At a citywide organizing meeting with twenty other organizing leaders, Adam and others agreed to work together and make sure every voting district is covered.

I asked him if they had official word Sanders was opening an office or if this was all "just hope." "Definitely not just hope. But,” Masser admitted, “there hasn't been any official word." Sanders has offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and in his home state of Vermont. Whether or not an office is ever opened in Manhattan, there will “definitely be campaign events,” Masser said, and he will definitely have a body of volunteers mobilized.

A sentiment I have heard repeated is “I don’t really like Hillary, but Bernie is…” Too old, too left, too radical, too something. And then I hear, “I would love to see him as president, but I don’t have too much hope it will happen.” But the more I meet people like Masser and his fellow Sanders supporters, the less I accept that.

Sanders is in an “upward trajectory,” Masser pointed out. His main message—that this country belongs to all of us, not just the billionaire class—resonates with a lot of people. He is the only candidate who doesn’t have a super PAC—something not lost on those most turned off by the state of presidential politicking.

But Sanders would probably be the first to admit he needs all the help he can get, where he can get it. Could the grassroots efforts in his hometown provide another boost?

Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Naked Racism, or Naked Partisanship?

Upon the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby ruling that invalidated long-standing preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states that had been subject to those provisions immediately began to impose new restrictions on voting and voter registration. Many believe these to have a disproportionate effect on African American voters, and thus many also and understandably believe these restrictions to be racially motivated. But what if it's not racism that generated opposition to the VRA and spurred the move toward the new, stricter requirements their backers say are aimed at reducing vote fraud? What if it instead is "naked partisanship"?
 
That's a possibility Randall Kennedy floats in his Harper's review (subscription) of Ari Berman's new book, Give Us the Ballot. After several pages spent on the history of voting rights since Reconstruction -- including the 1965 passage of the VRA and the political hostility toward it, as seen only in part by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's expressed preference for not signing reauthorization -- Kennedy toward the end of the piece cites recent legal scholarship in reconsidering the significance of race in the Shelby decision and subsequent implementation of voting rights restrictions.
 
Samuel Issacharoff, for instance, writing in the Harvard Review, "compared Section 5 of the VRA to an aging athlete, 'one step too slow to carry the team.'" Its forced retirement may be a good thing, prompting voting rights advocates to to consider "new mechanisms to a new era" that should no longer focus on "'the historically central question of racial exclusion.... [T]he category of race increasingly fails to capture the primary motivation for what has become a battlefield in partisan wars.'" Similarly, Guy-Uriel E. Charles and Luis Fuentes Rohwer in the Yale Law Journal--though skeptical of the Shelby decision--"do not see the end of preclearance as the disaster" that some bemoan: "'[I]n the current era we cannot say without any amount of certainty that the central problem of voting is race.'" Kennedy himself comes down on this side: "The VRA has completed the main task it was designed to address. Societal changes have made inconceivable the recrudescence of wholesale, unambiguous racial disenfranchisement" (italics his). 
 
The reaction to this of those alarmed by the spate of recorded deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement; by the racially motivated attack on Charleston's Emanuel AME Church; and by the edgy resentment of those opposed to the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces might be: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?  A return to unambiguous racial disenfranchisement may not seem so inconceivable in the midst of all of this. Then add in what this weekend's New York Times Magazine lengthy cover story characterizes as a five-decade effort by Republican activists at systematically dismantling the protections of the VRA: Is there anything so ambiguous about that campaign?
 
And yet: what if Kennedy is on to something?
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Fighting a Firing in Philadelphia

The first tuition payment for the 2015-2016 school year at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia is due Wednesday. How many families will choose to meet this deadline, however, is unclear. A number in this tight-knit community of parents plan to withhold payment to protest the recent firing of long-time religious education director Margie Winters.

Winters’s dismissal shares some similarities with the firings of staff and teachers from Catholic schools around the country in recent years: personal details (in this case, a same-sex marriage) come to light; a disapproving parent lodges a complaint; a beloved figure is relieved of duties; students and parents rally in support. While such movements may lose steam in the face of long odds against reinstatement, the parent community of Waldron thinks it can keep the pressure up through the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia so that it will still be an issue when Pope Francis visits in September. And an open letter to Francis from Winters’s wife, Andrea Vettori, that is now being shared across social media and news outlets is providing further energy. “Waldron is a community that acts when there is a crisis,” said Diana Moro, who is in charge of the Facebook page StandWithMargie, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes in just over a week.

How realistic are their hopes?

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Pope Francis delivers 'little encyclical' in Bolivia.

Pope Francis's address to the World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Bolivia on Thursday was described as a "little encyclical" by the editor of L'Osservatore Romano. Given its breadth and rhetorical power, that seems about right. Initial reports emphasized the pope's apology for the church's "many grave sins...committed against the native peoples of America," and of course that would receive some attention, given that it plays into the idea of the Catholic Church as unyielding. But the remark came late in the speech, following a withering critique of a globalized economy that operates on the "mentality of profit at any price" without concern for "social exclusion or the destruction of nature."

Do we realize, Francis asked, "that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?" He referred to these "three Ls"--land, lodging and labor--as "sacred rights." And, lest anyone wonder whether the Argentine pope was laboring under a benighted idea of capitalism, Francis made it clear that he was not just talking about the economies of Bolivia and its neighbors. No, "I am speaking about problems common to all Latin Americans and, more generally, to humanity as a whole." This system is "intolerable," he continued, echoing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si': "Farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable… The earth itself--our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say--also finds it intolerable."

Time is short, the pope declared. The planet and its people are suffering; we need change now. "Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea--one of the first theologians of the church--called 'the dung of the devil.' An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the 'dung of the devil.'" Pace David Brooks, Francis failed to mention the free market's wonderful ability to "harness self-interest" and put it to good, that is to say profitable, use. No, he has witnessed the system's failures firsthand, in the slums of Buenos Aires, in his travels as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, "I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world."

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Trans America

Transgender issues have loomed large these past months. In May a series of editorials in The New York Times, titled “The Quest for Transgender Equality,” presented stories of transgender Americans as narratives of personal struggle and liberation, ringingly evoking the civil-rights struggles that are centerpieces of contemporary liberalism. Then came the rollout of Bruce Jenner’s new identity as Caitlyn, with all the attendant hoopla.

I move in liberal-progressive circles where these breakthroughs for trans people are hailed with unanimous approval. Yes, there may be a dissenting note here and there (e.g., Eleanor Burkitt’s dyspeptic op-ed, “What Makes a Woman?”), but only over peripheral issues, like whether the particular image Jenner chose for her Vanity Fair cover, evoking a Playboy bunny from the 1960s, insulted feminists. The underlying notion – that changing one’s gender identification is a liberation to be celebrated – is never challenged. Indeed, if you do challenge it, you risk being labeled a hater.

I doubt there’s a single issue that makes me feel a wearier sense of confusion, and in some ways ideological exclusion, than that of transgender life. Being so far apart from other liberal/progressives makes me wince. In late April, listening to a segment of NPR’s On Point about Jenner, I found myself uncomfortably bristling at the self-congratulatory tone of the commentary. Host Tom Ashbrook and his guests (one of them a psychiatrist and co-author of “a resource guide written for and by transgendered people”) treated it as self-evident that all Americans should greet Jenner’s revelations as a triumphant cultural and political moment. Their enthusiasm exuded the implicit sense that there simply isn’t any ground to stand on for anyone who might have qualms about transgenderism.

Yet I do.

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Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

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'Laudato Si' ': Response Roundup

Here’s a mid-day roundup of response to Laudato Si’ from around the web (if you've already made sure to read Anthony Annett, David Cloutier, Michael Peppard, and Massimo Faggioli on Commonweal). Start with E. J. Dionne Jr., who, in a column posted to our website, says anyone who claims Francis is inventing radical new doctrines

will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. Laudato Si’ is thus thoroughly consistent with over a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition -- going back to St. Francis himself.

Similarly, Emma Green in The Atlantic:

Historical references  …  are peppered throughout the document, and they serve as an important reminder to an often-giddy media that loves to write about today’s revolutionary pope: In the Church, precedent is everything. Francis’s argument is deeply grounded in Catholic teachings dating back to the late-19th-century writings of Pope Leo XIII (and before that, Jesus). … This is far from the Church’s first foray into environmentalism. “I always remind my environmental friends that St. Francis was ours before he was theirs,” said John Carr, a professor at Georgetown and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This didn’t begin with Earth Day or Al Gore. It began with Genesis.”

R. R. Reno at First Things:

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era. … Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy. The only answer is repentance, “deep change,” and a “bold cultural revolution.” If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity.

But Josiah Neely, also at First Things, calls Laudato Si' “a more measured affair” that deserves fuller reading: “[T]here seems to be a fairly large disconnect between the criticism of (much of it made prior to the release of the actual text) and the encyclical itself.”

Francis X. Rocca in the Wall St. Journal zeroes in on “passionate language likely to prove highly divisive” and characterizes Laudato Si’ as abroad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy.” 

What, George Weigel asks, does Francis write in the encyclical?

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Kalief Browder's Stolen Life

As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two. 

Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.

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New issue, new stories

Featured right now on the website, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., as well as our June 12 issue, just posted today.

In writing on the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, E.J. discusses "The Two Santa Claus Theory" put forth by supply-siders in the 1970s and says that Sanders may be tapping into something:

The senator from Vermont has little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: Government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans...

Read all of "The New St. Nick" here.

And, among the highlights from our new issue is Robert Gascoigne writing on the affinities between Christians and the "secularists" who "share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life."

[The] significant commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights.

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

And, Rand Richards Cooper pens a Last Word on the troubling ubiquity of smartphones and the baffling "universal desire to be connected everywhere and all the time":

[T]hat’s America these days: people everywhere with their heads bent, fingertips flicking at their screens. Couples in restaurants, silently flicking. A schoolbus full of teenagers, heads bent as if in prayer.... But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?

Read all of "Flick, Flick" here, and see the full table of contents for the June 12 issue here.

The Enduring George Weigel Problem

George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.

Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.

And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel.  In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.

Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.

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Those Who Want Housing, and Those Who Need It

In London it’s become the fashion of wealthy homebuyers to supplement already sizable residences with cavernous subterranean lairs. In Manhattan it’s to move into a sky-high aerie, priced in the tens of millions, from which it’s possible to look down on the Empire State Building. In the Bay Area it’s to snap up anything inside the city limits of San Francisco, the near entirety of which has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley’s most monied.

Wealth has always shaped cities, but its current role in the transformation of urban centers around the world seems unprecedented, probably because there’s so much more of it, concentrated in ever-fewer hands, moving ever more fluidly and mysteriously through lightly regulated and technologically enhanced channels. Oligarch, plutocrat, or ordinary multimillionaire, the highest-net-worth property-seekers want to be in cities, or if nothing else be able to park their money in one (real estate being a good place to hide it). It may be a cliche to talk about the divide between rich and poor in places like London, New York, and San Francisco, but some cliches bear restating, especially when the divide seems increasingly inconceivable in its breadth -- the very function of a system engineered to practically ensure its further expansion. “Darwinian upscale urbanism,” as Martin Filler termed it in the New York Review of Books in April, referring specifically to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city he ran -- a place where the wealth of wealthy property owners was to trickle down to residents but instead, a researcher found, had “deleterious effects... on small business, the middle class, and taxpayers.”

It may not be easy to dig an enormous basement or live in a condo eighteen-hundred feet above street-level, but it would be even harder if there were not banks, developers, lawyers, real-estate firms, contractors, and politicians dedicated to making it possible.

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Same-Sex Marriage 'Reality Check'

Many who are responding to the 62.4% majority vote to nationally legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland are making much of Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin's frank but vague remarks in the New York Times:

The church needs to take a reality check.... It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.... [I]nside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society…

That there is a growing gap between young people and the church on this issue is not new news, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. Martin is right to point out that anyone who doesn't recognize this is in "severe denial." That's why I think this referendum is such good news. It's a reality check, yes, but it's also an opportunity to let go of the fight against same-sex marriage. If bemoaning the referendum becomes the church's basis for strengthening "its commitment to evangelization," as the Vatican's secretary of state suggests, the gap between young people and the church will only widen.

I don’t have the polling data to prove this, but I can't imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.

Is there a way for Catholics to simply disagree with same-sex marriage supporters instead of having to “defend traditional marriage”? Is there a widespread movement to force the church to change its teaching on marriage? Why can’t traditional marriage exist inside the church, with same-sex marriage outside the church? Agreeing to disagree relieves the opposing parties of the burden of needing to win. Ireland has decided, by majority vote, to legalize same-sex marriage. At least one front in this protracted culture war has gone quiet. What a relief.

Over at NCR Michael Sean Winters wonders if it’s possible that “those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education, but, in part, because of it?” That’s a very good question. I suspect they did. Catholics have imagination. Tradition isn’t a force that eternally battles advancing armies. It’s the way the substance (not the accidents) of church teaching is passed down through generations of believers who contribute to this process by reexamining and reexamining again what their faith means.

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

New issue is live

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

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

Read the whole thing here.

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

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

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

Read the whole editorial here.

Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.