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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 addressed an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople about 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,” she began “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: caps melting, air and water pollution, 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 affects social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she herself 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 implications—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 and not diminish all parts of creation.

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.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

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

Read the whole thing here.

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

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

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

Read the whole editorial here.

Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New issue, new stories

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

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

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

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

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

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive/liberal Catholics: what do they think?

Last Tuesday Paul Baumann posted “An unbroken tradition?”—an analysis of an article by Ross Douthat in The Atlantic.  Paul’s post drew almost a hundred comments.  Some expressed indignation that anyone claiming intellectual credibility might say anything positive about Mr. Douthat.   Others advanced to a lengthy and very substantial discussion of Catholic teaching on marriage.  All too belatedly I reintroduced one of the main points of Paul’s original post.  By that time, of course, virtually everyone had moved on.  Allow me to try again:    

Having admitted that Garry Wills is an “outlier” among progressive Catholics, Douthat nonetheless stated that what most progressives share with Wills is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.” 

Paul indicated that he shared some of Douthat’s worries “about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA."

“The problem,” he immediately added, “is determining what is essential and what isn’t.”

Now I, too, sometimes share these worries about the loss of essentials and the challenge of defining them.  But by and large I find—and I'd guess Paul does as well—that Douthat’s generalization about progressive Catholics’ almost nonchalant readiness to alter or abandon “many once-essential-seeming things” hugely exaggerated. 

Am I wrong?   And if there is not solid evidence for such a generalization, where does it come from?