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Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

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A Nobel Prize for Catholic Social Thought?

The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)

Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:

When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”

To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.

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'He Came Not for the Healthy'

Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.

First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?

I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Elizabeth Johnson: "Is God's Charity Broad Enough for Bears?"

At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”

The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?

“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.

In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?

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Seen, Heard & Not Heard at the World Meeting of Families (UPDATED)

PHILADELPHIA — More than 15,000 people showed up for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend. John Paul II proposed the World Meeting on the Family in 1992, the first was held in 1994, and subsequent meetings have been held every three years since. This year’s was the first to be held in North America.

Although men, women, children, priests, bishops, cardinals, and religious brothers and sisters from all over the world were in attendance, the 15,000 didn’t strike me as representative of the universal church. Conspicuously underrepresented demographics included: the poor, who likely couldn’t afford the time off, the price of tickets, or the cost of travel; the divorced; the infertile; the gay; and women who aren’t mothers, wives, or consecrated virgins. They weren’t just absent physically; their ideas, concerns, and struggles were also missing—or, if present, they were misrepresented through caricature and rhetoric about the truth of the church and the lies of secular society.

I was disappointed, not because I expected otherwise, but because hope is a necessary disposition for those of us who both love and get frustrated with the church—and my hope was misplaced. I hoped for a gesture of relative openness. Call it the Francis effect.

The World Meeting didn’t promise to be a dialogue, though; it promised to be a series of lectures and workshops. The lineup of speakers was probably an effective way to weed out any chance of dissenting attendees, as conservative champions like Christopher West, Robert Barron, Helen Alvaré, Scott Hahn, Greg and Lisa Popcak, and Janet Smith all gave presentations. Perhaps more frustrating than a lineup of expected and theologically aligned speakers was the invitation of non-Catholic (but conservative) leaders like Rick Warren and Elder Christofferson to give their thoughts on the family. It boggles my mind: How did Rick Warren get an invite to a conference covering Catholic views on the family, vocation, sexuality, while someone like Margaret Farley did not? Even if the church doesn’t support her views, she is an intellectually rigorous and ardently Catholic woman committed to deepening and broadening the spectrum of theological thinking in church. She could have been a panel member alongside some conservative counterpart, offering attendees of the conference a fruitful consideration of the effects of particular beliefs or policies.

There is space in the church for dialogue—it is the only church, I think, that is structurally and historically competent to bear diversity. Catholics can trust each other to earnestly desire what is good for the church, for each other, for the common good, and still disagree about how it comes to bear in practice. We don’t abandon the church when things don’t go our way; we dig our feet in a little deeper and, for the sake of the sacraments and the community and the traditions, we fight, learn, compromise, teach, fight some more. Under Pope Francis, conservative clergy in the American church will have to adjust to this just as liberal nuns have had to before. It’s part of being Catholic.

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Papal Coverage: The Lectionary Beat

Everyone's got a hot take on the Pope this week. The Washington Post's George Will went full Thomas Nast in fearful preparation for Francis's arrival. ("Francis's seeming sympathy for medieval stasis...against modernity, rationality, science.") All he needed was a cartoon with mitres shaped like alligator heads attacking financiers on Wall Street. 

By contrast, the New York Times's David Gelles offered a playful, well-reported piece on the front page of the business section (!) about the sharkskin-suit-wearing concert producer behind the scenes of the big show. ("The bishops," the producer said, "aren't showbiz guys.")

What's a scholar to do? What's my take? 

I scooped them all.

In an article for Yahoo's page about the papal visit, I explain the "breaking news" about the Pope's concluding Mass in Philadelphia. 

Detailed study of an advance, partial script of the worship service shows that the theme of income inequality will be dramatically emphasized.

With rhetorical flourish and prophetic fervor, the Mass will call for the “rich” to “weep and wail” over “impending miseries.” More specifically, the issue of wages will be explicitly addressed: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers” are “crying aloud.” The plight of migrant “harvesters,” undercompensated by absentee landlords, will feature as an example.

Did I use my Jesuit connections to secure an advance copy of the Pope's remarks?  I wish. No collar, no embargoed remarks. 

Instead, I checked the lectionary. It turns out that some of the strongest language in the Bible against income inequality (James 5:1-6) happens to appear in this Sunday's Mass. Pope Francis's emphasis on systematic exploitation of workers and migrants is, as Bible-readers know, deeply biblical. On Sunday this theme will be on display for all, and I imagine Pope Francis will take the opportunity to preach on it. 

It remains to be seen whether and how he incorporates this reading with the Gospel for the day. But thanks to the lectionary, millions of people will at least hear how central to the scriptures is the cry of the poor. 

(You can read the rest right here.)

Peter Steinfels on Politicizing Pope Francis

Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.

Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.

Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where

the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.

And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has

acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.

So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.

Annulments & Assessments

Much papal news in and outside of the mainstream media today, much stemming from Francis’s announcement on annulments, more assessing his strategies and successes on curial reform, and some on his call over the weekend for Catholics in Europe to extend the welcome to migrants and refugees.

On annulments: Emma Green at The Atlantic says the new policy is the first tremor signaling the big shakeups to come, while David Gibson, writing at NCR, takes a closer look at the streamlining of procedures and questions what effect the changes will have in the United States, “where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.” And at Crux, Inés San Martín goes a little bit deeper into the details. Now might also be a good time to view (or review) our Commonweal Reading List on the state of Catholic marriage, updated to reflect new developments.

At The New Yorker, Alexander Stille assesses Francis’s chances of making changes to the Curia, given how for “the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited.” “I got a glimpse of how difficult that might be,” Stilles writes

when I attended a gathering of high-level Vatican officials in Rome earlier this year and overheard a cardinal talking about how L’Espresso, an Italian news magazine, would soon be publishing a damaging exposé of the free-spending ways of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian whom Francis brought in to clean up the Vatican’s finances. The article was based on leaked documents, and the cardinal was clearly pleased with its imminent publication. “When Francis came in, the attitude was that everything that the Italians did was bad and corrupt—now it is a little more complicated,” he said. He felt that it was important to settle accounts with those he viewed as “pseudo-reformers.”

Paul Vallely, at New York Magazine, writes on what he sees as the pope’s “wily political strategy,” one built on alliance-building, openness to confrontation, and planning: “The pope’s friends describe him as a ‘chess player’ whose ‘every step has been thought out.’”

The Washington Post reports that Hungary’s Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo is not on board with Francis’s call this weekend for Europe’s Catholics to open their churches, monasteries, and homes as sanctuaries for those seeking refuge. “They’re not refugees,” Rigo said, quoted in the Post. “This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.” The Vatican itself is taking in two refugee families, now giving it the ability, according to The Guardian, to respond to Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League, “who in a radio interview once sarcastically asked how many migrants were living in Vatican City.”

New issue, now live

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

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

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

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

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

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

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

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

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

'Peripheral' Sources for 'Laudato Si’ '

Pope Francis’s new environmental encyclical cites the usual sources. In addition to Scripture, we find the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals and addresses of his papal predecessors, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, his own Evangelii Gaudium, and others.

Most surprising, however, is Francis’s turn to the documents of national and regional bishops’ conferences.  He cites one USCCB document (no. 52), one from the Canadians (no. 85), two from the Germans (nos. 48 and 69), and one from the Portuguese (no. 159). I counted twenty-one references to environmental documents from episcopal conferences.  Only the five mentioned above represent North America and Europe. The remaining sixteen refer to documents from bishops’ conferences in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.  Twice he cites the Latin American Bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document, on which he worked (nos. 38 and 54).

These references are doubly striking.  First, Pope Francis is the self-proclaimed “man from the end of the world,” who appoints new cardinals from places many Americans have never heard of.  As the pope of the periphery, Francis does not treat such questions as the environment and the family exclusively, or even primarily, in terms of perspectives dominant in Washington, Bonn, London, or even Rome. He wants to hear the voices of the churches from the Global South. Americans are going to have to get used to the fact that they make up only about 4% of the world’s Catholics. As this encyclical makes clear, Pope Francis does not map easily on to the landscape of cultural and political strife in the United States. His upcoming visits to Washington and Philadelphia will, I suspect, make this even clearer.

Second, these twenty-one references to teaching documents of episcopal conferences signal Francis’s own vision that the church of which he is chief pastor and teacher is a collegial body.

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Pope Francis's Earthquake

Laudato Si' offers two long-lasting gifts to the church. Through the body of the text, Francis first exhorts us to examine and renew our commitments to God, one another, and "our common home" on earth through an "integral ecology." But the footnotes of the text tell another story, related but distinct from the first. Francis has shown how the Pope can honor and foster collegiality and synodality among the world's Christian leaders.

Those aren't household words, but the concepts are simple enough. Collegiality refers to "the Pope governing the Church in collaboration with the bishops of the local Churches, respecting their proper autonomy."  Synodality is "the practical expression of the participation of the local Church in the governance of the universal Church, through deliberative bodies."

The extent to which Francis manifests these concepts in Laudato Si' is breathtaking. He cites seventeen different bishops' conferences or regional meetings (some of them more than once) from six continents. In order of appearance, they represent: Southern Africa, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, Argentina, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, New Zealand, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, Portugal, Mexico, and Australia.

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Joseph A. Komonchak Receives the John Courtney Murray Award

Joseph A. Komonchak has received the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America, the organization’s highest honor. Regular readers of Commonweal are no doubt familiar with Joe’s work: He is not only a longtime friend and contributor, but also (of course) a leading scholar on Vatican II, the editor of a five-volume history of the council, and the author of more than one hundred and fifty articles. The award was presented June 13 at the CTSA convention in Milwaukee. Please join us in congratulating Joe on winning such well-deserved recognition from his fellow theologians.

Discussing the encyclical

"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity."  Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare.   They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. 

The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons.  Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy.  Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy.  And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting. 

So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document. 

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Mailer, Buckley & My Alma Mater

I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.

Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.

When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.

Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.

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"Call Me Caitlyn"

Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” in the pages of Vanity Fair this week caused a stir, well, pretty much everywhere.  Much of the commentary I saw was positive.  There were some on the left, particularly feminists, who raised questions about Jenner’s decision to embrace a highly sexualized image of femininity.  Some religious conservatives expressed sympathy to Jenner personally but joined most of their colleagues in criticizing her decision to live as a woman and undergo gender reassignment surgery.

I’m increasingly of the belief that the state of Catholic teaching on these issues is more unsettled than at first it might appear.  It’s true that a few bishops--including Pope Francis--have offered negative appraisals of “gender theory,” which is popular in transgender circles.  But this is a very new issue and I’m not sure one can appear to a clear and consistent teaching on the matter that has been universally held for a long period of time.  The Catechism is pretty much silent on the matter.

The question as I see it is whether a person with a gender identity that is at variance with their chromosomal/physical gender necessarily violates the moral law if they choose to live according to their gender identity and (although this is a separate question) ultimately undergo gender reassignment surgery.

The argument that is usually offered against the idea that these actions could be morally licit is some version of the “divine will” argument.  In this case, the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.

I think this argument quickly runs into some problems. There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance.  Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal.  I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it. 

The rejoinder, of course, is that a normal chromosomal gender (i.e. XX or XY), in and of itself, is not a “disease” that needs to be treated.  My response would be that the disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.

If we see transgenderism as a brain disorder (and, as I will note later, no means all or even most transgender activists would accept this) the question is how to treat it.  Many religious conservatives seem to assume the only morally licit answer is, through some form of therapy, to change the brain (b.t.w., even “talk therapy” does this). But the brain is an organ too.  Either way, you are changing the physical operation or structure of the human body.  I’m not clear why a person is morally obligated to choose one form of treatment over another given that there are risks and side effects associated with both.

Ultimately, the concern of religious conservatives with transgender individuals who choose to transition seems to be a fear that this is merely another triumph for expressive individualism and a rejection of the idea that gender, per Genesis 5:2,  is actually encoded in the fabric of creation.

I’m not certain that this need always be the case.  Indeed, the actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct.  They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success.  Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery.  It was not a decision motivated by ideology.

To be fair, there are a large number of transgender activists who embrace a more fluid concept of gender under the rubric of “gender theory” that may be at variance with Catholic teaching. Ironically, such a position may undermine some of their public policy goals, such as obtaining health insurance coverage for hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery.  If transgenderism is a medical condition that requires treatment, then coverage would seem appropriate.  But if one is seeking a surgical procedure merely to outwardly express a subjectively chosen identity, the case for coverage is much weaker.  Most health insurance plans do not cover cosmetic surgery.

In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation.  Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation.  Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.

New issue, new stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

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

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

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

Same-Sex Marriage 'Reality Check'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on the homepage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

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

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

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

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

New issue is live

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the full table of contents here.