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dotCommonweal Blog

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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Praying with the Psalms, Part II

The first thing that struck me in reading André Chouraqui’s essay on the psalms (see Praying with the Psalms Part I) was his passionate and lyrical affirmation of a kind of mystical reality that speaks both to Israel and to the whole of humanity through the psalms. Here is how he describes it:

In this book the world has come to know and recognize itself. Just as it narrates the history of us all, it becomes the book of all, the untiring and penetrating ambassador of the word of God to all peoples here on earth. …

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The Law of Christ

The twelfth century Cistercian reform movement was characterized by both mystical sensibility and practical wisdom. Among its lesser known figures (but one deserving to be better known) is the abbot, Isaac of Stella.

Today's "Office of Readings" offers an example of the concrete teaching he gave to his community:

  This is what the law of Christ is like, the Christ who bore our griefs in his passion and carried our sorrows in his compassion for us, loving those whom he carried and carrying those whom he loved. On the other hand, whoever turns on his brother in the brother’s time of need, who exploits his weakness, whatever that weakness may be – without doubt he has subjected himself to the law of Satan and is carrying it out. Let us have compassion for each other and love the brotherhood we share, bear each other’s weaknesses and fight against each other’s vices.
 
  Whatever religious practice or observance it leads to, any teaching or discipline that fosters a stronger love of God and, through God, of our neighbours, is most acceptable to God for that reason. This love is the reason why things should be or not be, why they should remain the same or be changed. This love should be the reason why things are and the end to which all things are directed. For nothing can be considered wrong that is truly directed towards and according to that love.
A fine presentation of the great Cistercian writers, including Isaac, can be found in volume two of Bernard McGinn's monumental, The Presence of God: A History of Western Mysticism.

Wait, I thought that was a Muslim thing?!

A Christian husband and wife, both wearing traditional Jordanian head scarves, after a Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch near the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque. 

But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam. 

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The Genealogy of Jesus

I love the list of names in the Gospel today, Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus.

The list was the subject of a wonderful homily once given by the great Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe which concludes with a memorable Advent meditation:  “Well, that is the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ.  The moral is too obvious to labour:  Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela McNamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the Observer or the Irish Times.  He belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars—He belonged to us and came to help us.  No wonder He came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”

The homily, along with many other splendid things, can be found in Father McCabe’s book, God Matters.  Blessed Advent.

New issue, new stories

We’ve just posted the latest issue to the homepage, and here are some of the highlights:

  • J. Peter Nixon writes there’s still reason to be optimistic about Obamacare – but that “to understand why, it helps to know a few details about the law.”
  • David Cloutier writes on how luxury compromises Christian witness: “If many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable.”
  • John Garvey on the importance of vows – and “the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken” [subscription].

See the full table of contents for the December 20 issue right here.

Also featured today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the return of the working-class hero: “For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news.” Read the whole column here

Kids, raised Catholic

You’ve read installments in our series on raising Catholic kids. Now you can read responses from kids. Well, young people who were kids not so long ago and who grew up in homes where faith was a part of their lives. We’ve collected their stories on our special topic page, “Kids, Raised Catholic,” which you can find here

The ‘Raising Kids Catholic’ symposium continues

We’ve just posted the latest piece in our symposium “Raising Kids Catholic.” Today’s installment is from Liam Callanan. An excerpt:

There are … obtuse dads like me, and families like mine, who face a blizzard of conflicting societal and doctrinal pressures. More plainly: There’s the Disney Channel, cell phones, e-books, and a thousand other modern diversions from a straightforward path to faith.

And then there’s the church, or rather its leaders, who I find sometimes get in the way of me bringing my family to God. This feels like a new phenomenon, but I know it’s not. I think, once again, about Matthew 19: the reason Jesus says “Let the little children come to me” is because moments before, some children had been brought forward “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them,” and “the disciples rebuked them.” Two thousand years later, some disciples are still at it.

You can read Liam’s whole story here. You can also go directly to our special topic page, where we’re featuring all of the contributions to the Raising Kids Catholic symposium in one place as they’re posted. Commenting is enabled on that page, so feel free to keep the conversation going as new installments go live. 

“Mercy-ing”: A Starting Place for Vatican-Azhar Dialogue

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for "mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice"—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world. 

While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks. 

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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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The availability of prayer

Just a dumbass midnight thought, but I’ve been thinking, lately, of the horrifying availability of prayer.  Does no one else have this dread, from time to time, of the offhand remarks we make to God?  Our assurance that He knows us through and through, that He loves us intimately, emboldens us—or at least, emboldens me, occasionally, to assume that He also agrees with my prejudices and predispositions.  So that when this fatuous archbishop, or that overstimulated commentator, pronounces on some issue of the day, I can recline on the breast of the Boss, smirking at how much He and I know what malarkey this all is.  Of course, the Gospel is replete with all sorts of correctives, but every once in a while, that one from Luke 13:25, “I do not know where you are from” really smacks me, even in the wake of a New York Times editorial.

Mary Karr on prayer: "Just try it"

Fans of the poet and memoirist Mary Karr will want to read this lengthy interview in the Paris Review -- it's not new, but it's new to me (thanks, Twitter!). I reviewed Karr's third and most recent memoir, Lit, for Commonweal, and blogged about it here. In that book she recounts her struggles with addiction and recovery and her conversion to the Catholic faith. This interview is titled "The Art of Memoir," and Karr has many interesting things to say about that form (as well as about poetry), and about how she goes about writing -- something other writers always want to know. But even more interesting, to me, is what she has to say about how and why she prays -- and how prayer and writing are connected for her.

"I ask God what to write," Karr says. "I know that sounds insane, but I do. I say: What do you want me to say?.... I’ll get stuck and I’ll just say, Help me."

Karr goes into some detail about her personal prayer routine -- it's the kind of reading that makes me want to brush up my own prayer life. (She's also proudly vulgar, sometimes right in the middle of a sentence about prayer, so delicate sensibilities beware.) And she has a suggestion for anyone who doubts her sanity: "To skeptics I say, Just try it. Pray every day for thirty days. See if your life gets better. If it doesn’t, tell me I’m an asshole."

This is the part I like best; the part I identify with most:

KARR: Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, so I attend to the work and kind of forget myself. It’s strange, though—I know praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?

INTERVIEWER: No.

KARR: Me neither.

Perspective and Spirituality

It took me about three weeks to get from my strangely embarrassed general practitioner's admission that I have gotten some bad numbers on my prostate cancer blood test to the Big Day when I got the definitive biopsy results.

“Don’t worry too much” the urologist had told me during the biopsy as he punched another needle into my prostate.  (It made a sound like someone pulling the trigger on an unloaded gun).  “With your blood test numbers you have about a thirty percent chance of actually having it.”  I found these words reassuring and tried very hard to only be thirty percent terrified for the next ten days.
 

On the Big Day the urologist came into the little room where my wife and I were waiting and he was brimming with optimism.  (But why not?  He is a surgeon, so even if the news was bad I’d still have an opportunity to get surgery).

“Now let’s see.  We did 12 biopsy cores and 11 came back entirely benign.  But the 12th one had cancer.”

Seeing the shocked look on my face he hastened to reassure me.

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Featured on the homepage

We've been running some good web-exclusive content on the homepage. Just posted: "Catholics Are Different," a special package highlighting the writing of Andrew M. Greeley in Commonweal, where over the course of six decades his work appeared. And, if you haven't already, check out Nicholas P. Cafardi's piece on the apparent unwillingness of some bishops to follow their own sexual-abuse reforms. Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. examines a potentially unbreachable gap between libertarian theory and libertarian practice.