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Long on Lament, Short on Solutions? Dealing with Economic Inequality

Increasing inequality in the United States is a big problem. One recent analysis shows a disturbing graph, which displays not only that, in 2012, the top 1% captured 20% of income, but that the top 10% captured over 50% of income, a number that is higher than at any time in the last century, surpassing even the 1920’s. The graphs show this is not merely a matter of all the rewards of the recent recovery going to the top. As Eduardo Porter outlines it in brief, we are enduring a 30-plus-year stagnation of the middle-class. Bishops are speaking out on this. For many, a long lament on our “new Gilded Age” leads to a hope for a revival of Catholic social teaching. Even Catholic conservatives are taking note that “trickle-down” theories of dealing with poverty are failing. Michael Peppard and Michael Sean Winters have both recently commented that taking this problem seriously is both urgent and yet very difficult. (It is being made much more difficult by our absurd politics. But that would be a different post.)

It’s a difficult problem because we are long on lament, but really short on solutions that pay attention to the specific dynamics of our economy as it exists now. It is a truism that military leaders often “fight the last war” rather than the present one – so too, Catholics and their allies in fighting poverty can fall into talking about solutions that sound like “fighting the last economic war” – namely, that of the early 20th century.

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Our editors, and others, on 'the interview'

Now on the website, Commonweal’s editors on what the pope’s interview reveals:

[M]uch attention has been paid to the pope’s surprising admonition that the church has been too “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. As welcome as that observation is, however, the real importance of the interview is to be found in the pope’s clear-eyed evaluation of how the gospel should be preached in the modern world.

To be sure, many Catholics whole-heartedly embraced the change in tone and spirit in which the pope discussed difficult questions like abortion. Unfortunately, some deeply involved in the prolife movement have taken those remarks as a rebuke. That is an overreaction and misinterpretation of what the pope said. Obviously, Francis was objecting to the uncompromising and confrontational rhetoric of some Catholic activists. Why? Because that approach is simply not working. Worse, it is preventing the larger gospel message from being heard both within and beyond the Catholic community. With a third of all baptized Catholics abandoning the church, while those who remain are increasingly divided on ecclesial, cultural, and political questions, the pope’s diagnosis is hard to refute. Is it not time, as Francis urged, to “find a new balance” in presenting the church’s teaching to an often doubting flock and a sometimes hostile secular world?

Elsewhere, the analysis continues. R.R. Reno in First Things:

By my reading, Pope Francis was being a bit naïve and undisciplined in parts of this interview, which although reviewed by him before publication has an impromptu quality I imagine he wished to retain. This encourages a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church. This is a problem related, perhaps, to his Jesuit identity.

A key passage involves his image—a very helpful one—of the Church as “a field hospital after battle.” He observes that in such a circumstance we need to focus on healing as best we can. Some of the protocols and procedures fitting for a hospital operating in times of peace need to be set aside.

He then digresses into fairly extensive reflections on what the Church needs in the way of pastoral leadership in this situation: “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” We’re not to allow ourselves to fixate on “small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads,” “new paths,” and “to step outside itself,” something that requires “audacity and courage.”

These and other comments evoke assumptions that are very much favored by the Left, which is why the interview has been so warmly received, not only by the secular media, but also by Catholics who would like the Church to change her teachings on many issues.

At Room for Debate in the New York Times, Simone Campbell, Frances Kissling, Rod Dreher, Bill Donohue, and Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu offer their takes.

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Unprecedented liberal love for the Pope?

Commentary marking six months of Pope Francis has been a love-fest from the most unexpected place: liberal talk show hosts.

Chris Hayes started the series last week with the "Best. Pope. Ever." segment on his show, All In (MSNBC), in which we learned that Hayes's father had been a Jesuit and Hayes is feeling closer to the Church than he has since childhood. Then Melissa Harris-Perry, also on MSNBC, did a similarly positive piece on Sunday morning, highlighting many of the innovative pastoral decisions of Francis's young pontificate. While not Catholic herself, Harris-Perry is married to a Catholic and confesses deep connection with Catholic culture in her native New Orleans. Finally, a couple nights ago on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart joined the cascade of puff pieces about the Pope (though he ultimately redirected the segment to a satire of the possibility of his own successor also being more popular than him).

What's gotten into these liberal TV hosts? A secret cabal of pro-Catholic media executives in midtown? But that wouldn't explain the fact that evangelical flagship Christianity Today has similarly adored this Pope, nor could it account for liberal evangelical columnists on the west coast professing their admiration (e.g., critically-acclaimed journalist Cathleen Falsani).

Some might say it's just a chance to highlight religiously-grounded progressive causes. Maybe so. But I'll take Chris Hayes and Cathleen Falsani at their word. Falsani has a "crush" on this Pope, in the end, because "He's not fancy. He's a servant. ... He's leading by example." Hayes, for his part, is not holding out for dramatic changes in teaching, especially in the area of sexual ethics, but he nonetheless offered the on-camera encomium, concluding with these words:

Given the constraints of what being pope is, you can operate in one of two ways: you can be a jerk about it, or you can be awesome. And this guy is choosing to be awesome. And not only is that great for the Church, it’s great for the world to have a pope talking about what this pope is talking about: grace, humility, peace and compassion for others. Because that is the Church at its best, and the one that some part of me still loves. Amen.

Such closing words are not a normal throw-to-commercial on MSNBC, or any national network for that matter. Note also the relative youth of those praising the Pope in the segments cited above -- and their viewership skews even younger.

One undeniable fact about evangelization -- whether we call it "new evangelization" or not -- is that its outcomes are not entirely predictable. But the most tried and true method is walking-the-talk. Pope Francis has this in spades. And he's teaching us how to do it.

New issue, new stories on the website

Our September 27 issue is now live. Here are some of the stories we’re highlighting.

Paul Moses, in “Here to Stay,” looks at how Latinos are changing the country and the church.

[Long] term, it’s unclear how Latino voters will respond as their incomes rise—and as they are assimilated into American culture. Will they follow the path of other once-impoverished immigrant communities, such as Italians? Another open question is how many Latino Catholics in this country will remain Catholic. Young Latinos are not immune to the effects of secularism. Nor will they be unaffected by Protestant efforts to win them over—a trend across Latin America.

What is clear, as the Pew Research Hispanic Center predicted in 2007, is that “Latinos will bring about important changes in the nation’s largest religious institution.” Like politicians, Catholic bishops are learning that they can’t succeed if Latino Catholics don’t share their priorities. The bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s contraception-coverage mandate may have helped Mitt Romney take 59 percent of the white Catholic vote, but the Latino-Catholic vote overrode it to deliver the overall Catholic vote to Obama. The bishops’ new, more activist approach to seeking citizenship for undocumented immigrants—urging priests to give homilies on the subject, targeting members of Congress with phone calls, parish pilgrimages, and Masses dedicated to immigration reform—seems to reflect an awareness of the 2012 election’s demographic lesson. This new approach is similar to the one often taken to abortion or same-sex marriage. In June, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to all parishes of the Archdiocese of New York asking Catholics to support the bishops on “two important issues,” immigration reform and abortion, he mentioned immigration first.

Andrew J. Bacevich and R. Scott Appleby debate the current state of the peace movement, and whether it’s capable of exerting influence on U.S. policy [subscription]. “For Dorothy Day,” Bacevich writes,

The unfolding of salvation history may have provided an appropriate context in which to situate the Catholic Worker movement (or Christianity as a whole). In that context, the timetable may be unknown, but the outcome is predetermined. The Good News ultimately culminates in good news. Hence Day’s counsel of patience.

For the peace movement, however, it’s what happens in the meantime that counts. Whatever may await humanity at the end of time, afflictions endured in the here-and-now matter a great deal. Peace activists cannot state with confidence that history will ultimately yield a happy verdict. The persistence of large-scale political violence suggests grimmer possibilities.


Andrew Bacevich’s essay is confused—theologically, conceptually, and factually. As a result, it delivers half-truths, not least regarding “the peace movement.” Let’s begin with the theological. Dorothy Day is not our only option for gauging the impact of peacebuilding. Indeed, Bacevich’s version of Day is not even a recognizable theological option. Contra Bacevich, Kingdom of God theology—what he refers to as “salvation history”—hardly ignores “afflictions endured in the here-and-now”; nor does it postpone the pursuit of justice and the repair of the earth until “the end of time.” The reason Day and her followers concentrated on the works of mercy, prophetic witness, and solidarity with the victims of structural, cultural, and physical violence is that such actions constitute participation in God’s redemptive presence now, here, on this earth. Living as the poor and among the homeless, eschewing all forms of violence, railing against militarism—these were not futile acts or hollow metaphors but primary symbols, fully participating in the reality to which they refer.

Also in the new issue, Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon on the grim and largely untold real history of Poland’s wartime suffering, Celia Wren on the PBS series “The Hollow Crown,” and Mary Frances Coady on her sojourn through the Jordan desert.

And, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes on the repercussions of last week’s vote in Colorado that saw proponents of recently passed gun laws recalled from office – this more or less the same time as Iowa passes a law allowing the blind to carry weapons in public, as new data reveals the effect of gun violence on women, and as authorities continue to investigate the latest mass shooting: eleven reported killed today at the Washington, D.C., naval yard.

Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

The Church and the March on Washington: "Leaping into the air for joy"

Yesterday I posted some excerpts from Francis E. Kearns's report on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fifty years ago this week. Joseph Komonchak's comment on that post fills in some very interesting background on how the U.S. bishops were responding to the issues of civil rights, especially in preparation for the Second Vatican Council.

Today, some excerpts from Robert McAfee Brown's article "The Race Race," published October 11, 1963 (and slugged "A Protestant View"). Brown -- at that time a regular Commonweal columnist, a professor of religion at Stanford, and "an official observer at the Second Session of the Council" -- shared Kearns's impatience with white Christians who, he felt, were too slow in joining the fight for racial equality as their faith compelled them to do.

1963 will go down in the year in which the white Christian churches visibly and tangibly began to involve themselves in the racial struggle. That there were sporadic involvements before 1963 on the part of the churches and churchmen is obviously true. There were many fine statements by Protestant church bodies and by Roman Catholic bishops. Certain southern parochial schools were integrated. Certain church people made brave stands. A few were even arrested. But until the summer of 1963 one did not have much sense that the white churches had really thrown in their lot with the Negro. As Eugene Carson Blake said in his speech at the March on Washington, churchmen could only participate in such a gathering penitently, for they have not been leading the fight but have been lurking in the rear.

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The Church and the March on Washington: "The shock of relevance"

The fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is an excellent excuse to look into the Commonweal archives. What did Commonweal contributors have to say about the march -- who went, what did they take away, and where did they hope it would lead?

The first to report was Francis E. Kearns, then an assistant professor at Georgetown, who published his account of the march (which he attended along with some other Georgetown folks) in the magazine's September 20, 1963 issue ("Marching for Justice"). For him, the march was a watershed event in the history of religious institutions' engagement with the struggle for civil rights:

Perhaps the most significant gain scored by the march, however, is that, more than any previous incident or demonstration in the field of racial justice, it led great numbers of religious institutions and church members to make an act of commitment. In the past few years it has been the church authorities who have made the proclamations and joined in the rallies, but on August 28th one could see large groups of marchers carrying the banners of Bronx Hebrew congregations or Washington churches. On the speakers platform one could see the familiar bishops, but what was new was the presence in the audience of Washington parish priests, Woodstock seminarians, and suburban Maryland parishioners.

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Robert N. Bellah, in writing

Now on the website, a special package of Commonweal articles from sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah, who died at the end of July. Bellah was a contributor to the magazine since the early 1980s, writing on such subjects as the changing nature of the relationship between religion and power; American economic competitiveness and the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All; and the implications of "the Bush doctrine." You can find it here.

Weekend readings: Simone Campbell, David Brooks, Queen Elizabeth

Some items worth catching up on, before (or over) the weekend.

Sister Simone Campbell testified before the House Budget Committee this week, at a hearing that opened with Paul Ryan declaring that in America, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead.” When Campbell's turn to speak came, she talked about the effectiveness of federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) in improving the lives of America’s most vulnerable (watch the video below), noting that charity goes only so far. “Everyone has a right to eat, and therefore there is a governmental responsibility to ensure everyone’s capacity to eat.

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An outsider looks at Francis

Juan Cole has this sober and appreciative observation about Pope Francis's trip to Brazil. Unsmitten by papalotry, Cole captures the merits of the trip, perhaps from the perspective of Francis himself.

"There is a lot to like about Pope Francis. He wants to see the church serve the poor instead of primarily the elite (though again, he is no liberation theologian and isn’t interested in practical steps that would change class relationships– he is just interested in doing charity)."

Cole also skewers the U.S. media's take on the visit: "American culture displaces its severe class struggle away from economic issues onto identity politics. We avoid talking about how the working and middle classes are being screwed over by an increasingly wealthy and aristocratic 1% or about how the business classes are destroying the environment of the planet, by obsessing about race and gender instead. So Pope Francis’s tame remarks about silent, inoffensive, celibate gays being all right in the priesthood will generate a lot of comment.  His more challenging remarks, his focus on the needs of the poor and on preserving the environment– the messages well-off Americans need to hear– will be largely ignored in the corporate US media."

Read Cole's whole comment.

Religious Progressives?

Are religious progressives the wave of the future? 

That is the conclusion that a number of people have drawn from Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?, the study that has already been discussed here following posts by Paul Moses and myself.  Besides surveying Americans on economic conditions, inequality, capitalism, government economic policy, and religious values, the study paid special attention to what it considered the understudied counter to the religious right, namely “religious progressives.”

By combining scales measuring Americans’ views on theological, social, and economic issues, the study concludes that 28% of the population are religious conservatives, 38% are religious moderates, and 19% are religious progressives. 

The latter, however, may have prospects that those numbers belie.  First of all, that 19% of religious progressives are close in outlook on political, social, and economic questions to the 15% of Americans detached from any particular faith, the "nones.".  So a broader view of the nation’s religious landscape shows it roughly divided in thirds: 28% conservative, 38% moderate, and 34% progressive. 

More importantly, the authors of the study, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in collaboration with the Brookings Institute, emphasize that religious progressives are significantly younger than religious conservatives.  Religious conservatives' share of the population shrinks with every generation.  That’s what has been celebrated in blogs from the Washington Post to the Huffington Post by way of Salon.  The day of the religious right is passing, the era of the religious left is upon us. 

Sorry, it's not likely. 

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Capitalism, Government, and Religion

Last Thursday the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with the the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, published a report titled Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?  Religious Left, Religious Right & the Future of the Economic Debate.  

The survey on which the report was based, a very professionally designed phone poll conducted last month, has already been discussed below in a July 18 post by Paul Moses.  Having been invited to be part of a panel at  the Washington event introducing the report, I worked my way through it in considerable detail and am adding my own observations.

Here are some of the basic findings about the economy, inequality, capitalism, and government aid and competence:  

Whether one looks at Americans by ethnicity or race, by educational level, by party affiliation, or by generation, there is unusual agreement that the lack of jobs is the nation's number one economic problem.  There is also a general pessimism about the economic future.  Almost two-thirds of the population believe that the government should be doing more to decrease the gap between rich and the poor, and should provide a safety net to take care of people who can't care for themselves.   Less than 6 of 10 Americans think capitalsim is working well while more than 4 in 10 think that it isn't.  More than half think that unequal chances in life is a big problem.     

But more than two thirds also say that the federal government is "broken," either partially (40%) or "completely" (26%).

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Scalia: Chief Judicial Activist?

Antonin Scalia, just a few days ago:

In a speech to lawyers gathered June 21 in Asheville, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia decried judicial activism.

That was to the North Carolina Bar Association on Friday.  But today, Scalia and his colleagues struck down a law enacted by a 98-0 vote in the usually fractious Senate. Commonweal's editors predicted this "clear judicial activism" in their March 5 editorial. Now perhaps Commonweal's own legal experts can weigh in: Is Shelby County v. Holder the most "activist" Supreme Court decision of all time?

Let's see what the Senate's leader was saying about the Voting Rights Act all the way back in 2006:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the vote a major success. "The Voting Rights Act has worked," he said. "We need to build upon that progress by extending expiring provisions."

Indeed, the Voting Rights Act has, on the whole, worked -- a fact demonstrated clearly by the ruling itself. Has it worked so well that it is no longer needed? This is unthinkable, as demonstrated by the long litany of abuses in Ginsburg's dissent, many of them from the 2000's. This is not even to mention more recent attempts to suppress voter turnout, as discussed in this 2012 Commonweal editorial.

Recall that during oral arguments, Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act as the "perpetuation of racial entitlement." That inaccurate and offensive remark was likely to be forgotten over time, but with today's ruling, it will probably become the most memorable and quoted line of Scalia's career. 

In the previous words of Commonweal's editors:

Scalia’s offhand reference to the “perpetuation of racial entitlement” was another startling reminder of why the VRA is necessary. The federal government goes to great lengths to ensure equal representation not as a generous gift to racial minorities, but because the right of all to vote and be counted is fundamental to our political system.

A right, not a gift.

Defending the One Percent? Mankiw on Inequality and Just Deserts

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has written a forthcoming article, titled “Defending the One Percent,” that should be required reading for anyone interested in economic justice and inequality – perhaps especially for those like myself who will dispute Mankiw’s conclusions. As a WaPo opinion piece rightly suggests, Mankiw’s anecdotal affirmation of equality of opportunity is problematic. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the piece because of this, for it is a remarkable (and remarkably candid) laying-out of the fundamental challenges from mainstream economics to Catholic concerns about inequality.

Mankiw’s overall argument suggests that we have three possible ways of deeming whether wealth inequality is wrong: a strictly utilitarian perspective, a “veil of ignorance” perspective, and his preferred alternative, what he calls the “just-deserts” perspective, in which “people should receive compensation congruent with their contributions.” In defending the latter perspective, Mankiw makes a number of provocative claims:

He disputes the claim about inequality-of-opportunity partly on grounds that genetic inheritance plays a role in various traits that correlate with high income. He rejects claims that most high-income individuals are compensated beyond their productivity, and (rather carefully) refutes the standard arguments against such compensation. He instead argues that high compensation at the top is the result of increasing demand for high-skilled workers relative to low-skilled, and technological change which allows some of these high-skilled individuals to leverage their talents across enormously large fields of demand. If the best possible doctor could be seen by as many people as Twins catcher Joe Mauer, he would probably make more than Joe Mauer. He accepts that the wealthy benefit not only from government infrastructure and research but also from transfer payments, but suggests that the 1% already contribute disproportionately to public funds through progressive taxation, and that over time, government spending has increasingly shifted from infrastructure investment toward transfer payments.

Mankiw is a worthy conversation partner, largely because he is not a doctrinaire conservative. He actively supports Pigovian taxes on negative externalities (e.g. higher gas taxes), and is far more careful to accept the existence of distorting, “rent-seeking” problems in present systems. He accepts, for example, the claim that some activity in the financial sector is excessive not because of its primary work of efficient allocation of investment capital, but because of opportunistic use of split-second information and the like. So Mankiw is not blind to our problems. But he does want to fundamentally defend the present system as largely just and effective. I want to call attention to three underlying tenets of his argument, because I think these – and not the empirical issues above – are what should be disputed by Catholic social thought:

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"Catholic McCarthyism" and the CCHD

Conservative opposition to the bishops' signature anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, has been denounced by bishops and defenders of the church's social justice mission for years. But a new report released today by the progressive lobby Faith in Public Life does a comprehensive job of tallying the efforts of rightwing groups to hamstring the CCHD's mission through what it calls a "Catholic McCarthyism" that relies on guilt by association.

The report points to the emergence of the old neo-Donatism that ignores Catholic teaching on cooperation with evil in favor of a purist approach -- which often dovetails nicely with the right's more libertarian economic views.

The report is here in full -- it's 24 pages but is very readable with lots of solid research and quotable quotes. My Religion News Service story is here, and provides the Reader's Digest (does that still exist?) version.

What seems most significant to me is that this isn't just a blast from the Religious Left against the Religious Right. Rather, the FPL report has been endorsed by dozens of leading Catholic officials and activisits -- many of whom will be recognizable to Commonweal readers -- but also by two former heads of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane.

As Fiorenza says in the report, the Catholic Church has always worked with groups that it may not agree with completely, but as long as the church wasn't directly supporting or endorsing that group's objectionable goal, there wasn't a problem. He fears that is changing, to the detriment of the church and the country:

"At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty."

When I spoke to Fiorenza, he was just heading off to the bishops' closed-door meeting in San Diego -- the first since the election of Pope Francis -- and he was hopeful that Francis' priority on identifying the church with the poor would make an impression of some of the bishops who have bought into the criticisms of the CCHD.

“I’m confident that if Pope Francis knew about the CCHD program he would say, ‘God bless the American bishops!’ for doing what they can to help the poor,” Fiorenza told me.

I wonder if this report and the public support it has drawn from so many Catholic leaders may be a sign of the "Francis Effect" on the wider church.

I recommend reading the FPL report as well as Francis' daily homilies. It seems he doesn't go a day without preaching about social justice. Gay marriage and our favorite American topics, not so much.

Jesus' parables: Where do you read yourself in?

In preparation for a workshop at the New York Catholic Bible Summit, I have been exploring the ways in which Jesus' parables can be defamiliarized for seasoned Christians. The parables can lose some of their dramatic force through repetition over the years. How many times have you heard the Good Samaritan? When it comes up again in the lectionary next month, will your mind wander, since you know every word of the story by heart? How can we hear the parables anew?

One method for refreshing the parables is to experiment with where one "reads oneself in" to the story. Many of the parables speak to multiple audiences at the same time, as when the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) brings comfort to the poor, while also rousing the rich from complacency. Parables about sin and mercy, such as that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18), invite listeners to read themselves in to both characters at different moments in life. It's also among the most clever of the parables because once you imagine yourself as the tax collector ("I'm like the tax collector, a humble sinner, and definitely not like that pompous Pharisee"), then you automatically become more like the Pharisee. The oxymoronic pride in one's own humility springs the rhetorical trap of the story: most of us are both Pharisee and tax collector.

Even that most famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) can be revitalized through this exercise. Many readers read ourselves in as the Samaritan -- of course, the exhortation "Go and do likewise" commands us in this way. But many Christians around the world feel themselves to have more in common with the man in the ditch, as evidenced by research about biblical exegesis in poor communities. Indeed, the oldest extant artistic rendering of this parable (as far as I am aware) titles the parable, "Concerning the man who fell among thieves" (illumination 7 in the Rossano Gospels). Where we read ourselves in sometimes relates to the titles we give the stories (cf. the "prodigal son").

One of the best interpretations of the Good Samaritan develops by imagining oneself in to the characters of the priest and the Levite. Why didn't they stop? What was on their minds? Maybe they had perfectly good reasons -- the same kinds that we ourselves give when we pass by? I am referring to a middle section of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Mountaintop" speech (April 3, 1968). We all know the prophetic ending of that speech, but less known is the eloquent interpretation of this parable in the middle (audio starts about the 29:00 minute mark; text here). For King, this is a parable about two things: race and fear. But I don't want to steal King's thunder by summarizing his take, and it's worth a listen.

In our own society, then, where are our parables about race? What would Jesus tell today? Hard to say, but it's possible that he would have been making short viral videos. Yes, I'm serious. When I think of what medium affects me in the ways that Jesus' parables likely affected his audiences, I often think of the many excellent, short videos that circulate on the web. I'll leave you with one example, a kind of 21st-century parable about race. Granted, this one is not fiction, but a presentation of a social experiment. Nonetheless, it brings for me the same sense of discomfort and self-scrutiny that many of Jesus' parables also evoke.

Where do we read ourselves in to this story?


More Greeley

I can't say I was a particular friend or foe of Andrew Greeley, but his death last week made me sit down and think about him. He was a man apart, yet he reminds me of the Chicago Catholic Church in which I grew up. Here is what I wrote:

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What does the government do better than you?

This question was brought to the front of my attention by a recent essay in The American Prospect. Monica Potts responds to Paul Ryan's philosophy of government:

The conservative approach to government stems from a basic tenet of free-market economics: that people always act rationally to maximize their own benefits, and that from this rises a general state of well-being for society as a whole. But this isnt always true. One of the hottest academic disciplines to arise in the last few decades is behavioral economics, which explores the ways in which people behave irrationally. In addition, easy-predictable problems with certain markets prevent us from achieving the best outcomes. These two facts have consequences for how we should think about government in certain instances. There are many ways in which the government can make better decisions with our money than we can, and there are many ways that the Ryan budget would make society worse off by getting rid of government programs.

She goes on to explain her top-five list, which you'll have to go there to read. But I would add one more thing big government is good for. And to my mind, it is the clearest and most pressing one of all. But first, back to college for a minute.

It is a testament to my undergraduate professor of Political Theory, John Roos (now emeritus) that I remember the contents of the final exam I wrote for him. Of course, the main reason I remember it is that I had overslept and missed the exam I was supposed to take. So the professor had to improvise with my exam. He sat me in his office, clearly flustered that I had overslept, but pondering what would be merciful and fair in my situation.

He handed me a blue book and said, "OK, there's been a coup and another of the Yugoslavian states has successfully seceded. You're a famous professor of political theory and they bring you in to help them construct their new government. What do you tell them? You have three hours. My grad student will sit here while you write." (The grad student was not pleased with this decision.)

I wrote that the primary principle of government is to preserve as much individual liberty as possible, while still actively promoting a common set of public goods. In theory, everyone wants minimal government. The debates are about what counts as minimal.

With Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan, we have a faint chance for this debate to happen over the next two months. Most of us have grown skeptical of our electorate's ability to have such a debate, but the opportunity is here in a way it hasn't been for several elections. Many of the speeches at the Republican National Convention, such as Gov. Chris Christie's last night, will focus on individual liberty vs. big government (or "coddling" government, as he termed it last night).

When I think back on my exam answer, I know most of it was boilerplate stuff -- not A material. The government should provide some military, roads, sanitation, police, fire departments, primary and secondary education, and so on, I wrote. My government for hypothetical Slavinostia looked a lot like a center-right American administration. I was tired, not remembering the finer points of Rousseau, and fell back on the political theory that I knew from just living in America. Not even B material.

But there was one breakthrough moment, one which I carried forward in life and has affected all of my voting since. I ended up writing a large portion of the exam about the necessity of environmental protection at the federal level. Many environmental problems can and ought to be addressed locally, but some of them simply cannot be. I also argued then off the cuff, and now would do so with much more data and (I hope) sophistication, that individual human beings are almost universally unable to imagine or prevent our large-scale effects on the global ecosystem. We don't comprehend the scale of our effects; and we don't muster the will power to change our behavior. We have entered the "anthropocene" era of planet "Eaarth," as Bill McKibben has renamed our beleaguered planet.

Environmental regulation is uniquely positioned, then, to both promote the public good and preserve individual liberty in the long term. My center-right government, geared towards liberty, demanded a massive federal regulatory agency. In other words, to maximize liberty in the current era, even a minimal government needs a fierce EPA. In my world, Slavinostia's EPA was going to be its most important federal agency. Its bizarre government looked, in the end, like it was designed by the team of Ronald Reagan and John Muir. (Or maybe something like what David Frum espouses.)

I still agree with my undergraduate self. If I had to pick one thing that big government is good for -- and one which I wish were a larger part of the current debates -- it is environmental protection.