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.Read more
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?
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.
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.
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"?
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 Religions, and Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe.
See the full table of contents here.
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.
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.
On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:
Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.
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.
Thank you, Freddie Gray.
You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.
Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.
Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.
And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.Read more
E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:
“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”
This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”
Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.
Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:
How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?
More broadly and just as important:
What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology if a pope says this?
Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.
We've posted two new stories to the homepage.
First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."
And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.
...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”
Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here.
Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:
Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.
Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.
Fordham students and faculty gathered last Thursday to present a petition to Fordham president Fr. Joseph McShane, S.J. to revoke the honorary degree granted to CIA director John Brennan in 2012. The video below covers the event.
The petition indicts Brennan for his complicity in war crimes of “enhanced interrogation” and “extraordinary rendition”—euphemisms for torture and kidnapping. He has publicly defended these practices:
As Director of the CIA, Mr. Brennan continues to defend the use of torture. In a formal response to the Senate report, he praised CIA officers for acting “in accordance with the legal and policy guidance they were provided.” Mr. Brennan is referring to the “torture memos,” a series of discredited legal briefs produced under the Bush administration that wrongly permitted such atrocities as rectal feeding, isolation, physical beatings, exposure to extreme temperatures, and sexual humiliation. Moreover, despite the Senate report’s unequivocal condemnation, Mr. Brennan remains willing to torture others in the future. Asked whether he would endorse further uses of torture, Mr. Brennan replied, “I defer to policymakers in future times.”
The petition only mentions Brennan’s most egregious violations of human rights and Catholic moral teaching (including Fordham’s mission statement). As Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama, Brennan has been a "chief architect" and defender of President Obama’s extrajudicial drone campaign, about which he falsely claimed in 2011, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death.” Brennan has recently made the news when the CIA illegally hacked into Senate computers. He then denied this to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News: "As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's—that's just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do."
We will see in the coming months if Fr. McShane and other Fordham leaders decide (however belatedly) to practice the Jesuit ideals they proudly profess.
With a murder charge filed against a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled--according to a now widely circulated video--I wondered what account police initially gave of the shooting before the video surfaced. A story that the Charlleston Post and Courier carried on Saturday, the day of the shooting, provides the answer. Police in North Charleston, S.C., maintained that the officer fired to protect himself after Walter Scott, 50, grappled with him for his Taser and took control of it. As the paper reported, with careful use of attribution:
Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.
The video discloses much more. It does appear to show a struggle over some object that falls to the ground. Then it shows Scott turning his back on the offer and running away.The officer, Michael Slager, aims his gun and shoots eight times, until Scott falls. Slager then handcuffs Scott, who is face down on the ground. Then he goes back to pick up the object that had fallen to the ground, and appears to return to drop it beside Scott's body, according to The New York Times.
As the mayor of North Charleston told the Charleston Post and Courier, without the video, the events that followed would have gone much differently.
Tonight at Georgetown University the second annual IgnatianQ conference kicks off a weekend of lectures, breakout sessions, dialogues and keynotes that uniquely focus on LGBTQ issues and Jesuit values, aiming to create a community of people active in their faith, community and campus, who continue conversations. The first IgnatianQ (after ivyQ) was hosted by Fordham last year—created, planned and organized entirely by students. It grew from one conversation between two people on a roof to a three-day dialogue of 96 participants traveling from six different Jesuit schools to attend. And now it's in it's second year.
Bolstered by the University’s mission statement and the powers vested in academic freedom, the group of organizers approached the Theology department first with a 12 page proposal they’d carefully put together through months of weekly meetings, unsure and anxious about how well it’d go over. They not only received “overwhelming support” of the idea for IgnatianQ but also a keynote speaker, $300, and a room to hold meetings on campus—legitimacy. Soon enough many other departments signed on and they had enough money and backing to let real preparations for the conference begin. Anthony, one of the originators, remembers with slight disbelief meeting with the University vice president, who’d need to talk with the president (both priests) who’d need to approve the conference. “I told him ‘I pray that the politics of man do not interfere with the work of the holy spirit in organizing this conference’” Plainly, “Don’t let your reservations about the word queer get in the way of what these students need right now.” And they didn’t.Read more
Like most people who think it’s a bad idea to spray homeless people with water in order to move them along, I found myself rather surprised by last week’s news that the cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco had been doing just that for the past two years. The archdiocese’s response was swift. The day the story broke it hired a crisis communications consultant, began dismantling the homeless irrigation system, and issued a statement that included an apology. Obviously when a Catholic church is discovered to have been regularly dousing the poor with water—for whatever reason—it has a major PR problem. Facing such a crisis, a church’s best bet is to admit the mistake, explain how it happened, and offer sincere apologies to the offended. In other words, stop digging. But that’s not exactly what the Archdiocese of San Francisco did, and that’s why it’s hard to accept the words it arranged in the form of an apology. How might it have been more convincing? Let’s count the ways.Read more
After the day-long media storm over news that San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral had for two years been using a watering system to douse homeless people sheltering in its alcoves, the archdiocese has issued an apology and states that the system has been removed.
(Update: Bishop William Justice, who is also the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, addresses the press in this video clip. "Nobody mentioned anything for two years," he says at one point. "Not that that makes it right.")
The cathedral, the home church of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, installed the system about two years ago after learning about its effectiveness in the city’s financial district “as a safety, security and cleanliness measure.” The sprinklers, mounted about thirty feet high in four locations, would activate automatically every thirty to sixty minutes, for more than a minute, simultaneously in all locations. There were no signs to warn those gathered below that such a system was in use, though according to archdiocese spokesperson Larry Kramer, “No Trespassing” signs had been posted.
At the time of installation, the cathedral felt it was “fighting a losing battle against crack pipes and condoms and human waste,” Kramer said. The cathedral had tried extra lighting and security guards, without success, according to Kramer, who acknowledged there was “hesitation” about other methods – including gates to close off the areas in question. When asked whether the cathedral would have continued its practice of dousing homeless people if not for Wednesday’s report by a local radio station, Kramer allowed that that was a “fair” assumption. The method “worked,” he said, though it is unclear how well, given that homeless people were still sheltering in these areas, in some cases using umbrellas.
Though the archdiocese says it tried to get homeless people to move to other areas at the cathedral, it has not specifically identified those locations. Further, the system, according to reports, did not in fact clean the alcove areas: because no drainage system was installed, water would simply collect where it fell. The cathedral also installed the system without acquiring necessary city permits; it may also violate water-use laws in California, which is in its fourth year of damaging drought. Asked why or how the cathedral could have undertaken installation of a system of such scope in such a prominent structure, without permits, Kramer said the “why when and how of the original decision remains fuzzy.” He said that the cathedral – “normally assiduous” about process -- had acquired retroactive permitting for the original installation as it prepared to dismantle the system yesterday.
There’s more than what publicity people call “unfortunate optics” here. That a Catholic church could treat vulnerable people gathered on its own steps with such disregard is bad enough on its own, but there’s something additionally troubling about it being expressed so, well, cowardly -- from above, without warning, and automatically activated: set it, and forget it. Think about how those who approved the system and countenanced its continued operation might not have been all that far away, perhaps sleeping, and almost certainly dry.
But, said Kramer: “As human beings, they felt terrible.”
There may yet be more to come on this.
In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.
In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.
But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?
The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.Read more
On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.
Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.
Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.Read more