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Remembering Klaus Demmer

In September 1982, I moved to Rome to do a licentiate and a doctorate at the Gregorian University. I wanted to study with Josef Fuchs, SJ, who had just retired but told me he would direct my dissertation. He suggested that in preparation for the degree I should do my licentiate course work and thesis with Klaus Demmer, MSC. A fellow Jesuit studying at the Gregorian told me that many thought Demmer, who died July 18 at the age of eighty-three, the greatest European moral theologian of his generation. I had never heard of him.

Fuchs and Demmer proved to be very different from each other: Fuchs was clever and friendly, hosting doctoral students in the Gregorian’s dining room and then later in his room where we would retire to drink and share stories. Demmer was shy and frail; the only time I went to his room was to discuss my licentiate. None of us socialized with him; if we discussed anything with him, it was usually a recent lecture of his.

It was in the main aula of the Gregorian where Demmer was in his element. Before his lecture, he would pace back and forth across the enormous foyer collecting his thoughts. At the break, he would do the same. We never interrupted him because we knew that his lectures to the two hundred of us would be memorable. More than thirty years later, they remain so.

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Does the Man with the Ball Get to Define the Game?

David Cloutier says the point of Paul Griffiths's talk is to ask the question "what is theology"? But why do we have to accept his question as THE question, let alone his answer?

As I said at the session, I think Griffths's talk was a jeremiad. It was an indictment of the CTSA, which he himself acknowledged.

But he doesn't have actual jurisdiction, let alone subpoena power. So CTSA members don't need to accept his framing of the charge. And one point of my piece is that I don't think they should.

I really don't see why the narrow defnitional question "what is theology" needs to be the CTSA's question, collectivley, although it may indeed occupy a number of its members. In fact, I suspect insisting upon a precise, exhaustive, definition of theology before moving on to other questions is an unhealthy preoccupation with methodological prolegomena. CTSA members don't need a precise answer to the question in order to do good and fruitful work. In social ethics and moral theology, we live with unclear and sometimes contested and contestible boundaries. Does it really matter whether John Courtney Murray was doing theology all the way down, or was mixing theology and insights from democratic theory? Did he have to get that definitional question right before moving on to address religious liberty? Is it essential to separate his anlysis of the American situation from the rethinking of the doctrine on church-state issues, even if we can distinguish some strands? Those questions are important to ask in some cases, I think. But I don't think there was any way they could have been settled in advance

The Church, after all, baptized elements of Greek philosophy and Roman law, integrating it with insights from Jewish sources. And to the extent that "natural law" is a key aspect of Catholic moral thinking, streams are muddled here as well. Do we need to "purify" all the water in advance?

I still don't know, positively, why members of ACT would want to join CTSA—any more than why someone convinced that philosophy was only analytic philosophy would want to join a group with a substantial number of continental philosophers.  

I would be grateful if someone would answer that question.

Theology and Other Catholic Sports

Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at the CTSA (the full text is now available here) has raised many productive questions. Meghan Clark has responded that theology is messier than Griffiths suggests. Cathy Kaveny just posted a thoughtful comment indicating that the main issue is the CTSA as more “open” and “free-wheeling” than the ACT.

These analyses are on to something, and I would love to engage them in more detail, but I fear that it becomes easy to fall into a dualism—the inclusive liberals over here, the exclusive conservatives over there—that misses the central points of Griffiths’ talk. It is not primarily about tidiness versus messiness, nor about open discussion versus more narrow inquiry. It is an attempt to define more carefully what the enterprise of theology actually is, and thus delineate in more detail why there is contention over it.

Griffiths’ primary contention in the address is that many members of the CTSA do not have an adequate understanding of what Catholic theology is. He is not saying that their work is not intellectually able, and even “beautiful” (a word he uses)…the question he poses is whether it is Catholic theology. Hence, his primary metaphor of arguments between proponents of cricket and proponents of baseball—or the problems with inviting cricket teams to take part in the World Series. It’s not meant to be a point about cricket being worse than baseball…or better. The point is: cricket is one game, baseball is another. The implication: CTSA has people playing cricket and calling it baseball. Doing one thing (which is not theology), but calling it theology.

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Why isn't academic theology conservative?

Are conservatives underrepresented in the theology and religion departments of our nation’s colleges and universities?

This was one of the questions discussed at the 2014 annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America and already here on this blog. It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time, and I wrote about it once in these pages.

The basic answer is Yes. When compared to the overall percentage of conservatives in religious communities or society at large, conservatives are underrepresented in academic theology.

However, when compared to conservatism as represented in other academic fields, theology is not very different.

That’s why I think the more interesting question concerns academia on the whole, of which theology is just one field that fits the trend reasonably well. The results of the limited sociological studies on this issue, notably that of Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner (good summary here) and, more recently, that of Neil Gross, show that self-selection is the primary reason the professoriate leans liberal. There are few conservative professors because, under the current conditions, few conservatives want to become professors.

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Confessions of a Christian Zionist

In the Spirit of the day [Pentacost], here is a fascinating and unusual account of religious conversion and insight. 

From the Jewish Daily Forward

What is theology?

SAN DIEGO -- Yesterday morning, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America listened to an extended critique of the way their organization operates, especially with respect to the way the society conceives of the practice of theology itself and its attitude toward more conservative theologians. The paper, delivered by Paul Griffiths of Duke University, caused quite a stir--an effect that seems not to have been accidental. I live-tweeted the session, as well as a related one that took up a report on "theological diversity" at CTSA released by an ad hoc committee last year.

Caveat lector: This is going to be long. And the ghost of Steve Jobs seemed determined to introduce errors as I tried to capture the flow of commentary. So you'll see a few typos (and informalities, all thanks to autocorrect). Also: Mostly I'm paraphrasing, so I apologize in advance if I've inaccurately conveyed a speaker's intent. Bearing that in mind, you'll find the day-in-tweets after the jump.

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Nicea III in 2025?

With the unpredictability of Pope Francis, some Catholics have wondered if he would call another council -- a Vatican III. It appears not.

Something that big won't do for Francis. He's thinking even bigger: the church universal will be getting a Nicea III.

According to reporting from AsiaNews, His All Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has announced that an ecumenical "gathering" will be held in Nicea in 2025.

Speaking exclusively with AsiaNews, Bartholomew says that together with Pope Francis "we agreed to leave as a legacy to ourselves and our successors a gathering in Nicaea in 2025, to celebrate together, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod, where the Creed was first promulgated."

The exact nature of the planned meeting at Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey) is not known. But how could it be, over a decade in the future?

The ongoing Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will be intensified in preparation for the event. What began in Jerusalem in 1964 and was celebrated last week at the Holy Sepulchre will continue in the holy city this fall, when, in Bartholomew's words, "a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission  will be held hosted by the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III. It is a long journey in which we all must be committed without hypocrisy."

In all the attention to the Pope's gestures toward political peace in the Holy Land last week, the joint event with the Orthodox got a bit lost in the mix.

But Francis and Bartholomew didn't lose focus. And they've got a date on the calendar to prove it.

An interview with Cardinal Kasper.

Cardinal Kasper (CNS/Paul Haring)Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.

Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?

Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.

[...]

CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?

Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.

When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.

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Kasper & Kaveny at Fordham.

Last night Cathleen Kaveny interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper at Fordham University in front of a packed house. The cardinal has been making the rounds in New York and Boston, promoting his new book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. It was a fascinating conversation, veering from the abstract (How is mercy the key to understanding God's nature?) to the practical (How merciful must I be when grading students' papers?) and back again. Kaveny asked excellent questions, as did the audience, and Kasper offered fascinating responses, some of which I live-tweeted. After the event, one of my Twitter followers suggested I collect some of my my tweets via Storify. So that's what I'm going to do--or at least try to do. Caveat lector: unless you see quotation marks or I say otherwise, I'm not directly quoting anyone, and it's possible that I misheard some of the Qs & As (and sorry for any typos--autocorrect is against me). I've never Storified before, so bear with me--and let me know whether this is remotely useful--after the jump.

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CDF prefect tells U.S. nuns they were wrong to honor Elizabeth Johnson.

Last week, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rebuked representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an Outstanding Leadership Award to Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, "a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings." He called that decision "a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment"--that would be the one that looked like little more than investigation by Google.

Mueller couldn't bring himself to actually use Johnson's name, but everyone in the room knew that he was referring to a 2011 "critique" of her book Quest for the Living God that was published by the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Committee on Doctrine really disliked the book. You can tell because they claimed it "completely undermines the Gospel." But the committee's case was rather weak. It seemed to rest on false assumptions about Johnson's intent--especially on issues related to feminism, which led me to wonder whether committee members had actually read the book. They didn't even invite her to discuss their concerns before publishing their broadside. And when Johnson responded at length to the critique, the bishops on the committee replied by repeating themselves. All in all, not the finest hour for the USCCB Committee on Doctrine--and it probably would have been better for all involved if the entire episode was forgotten.

But here comes Cardinal Mueller, prefect of the CDF, to remind the LCWR that they should have known better than to provoke his criticism by daring to honor one of the most honored theologians working today. He refers to the alleged "gravity" of the "doctrinal errors" of Johnson's "writings"--which makes it sound like her entire body of work is suspect--but he doesn't name them. And neither, really, did the Committee on Doctrine. Their statement vaguely mentions "errors," but mainly it's concerned with "ambiguities." The only "error" it identifies is methodological. But as Johnson herself noted, the committee misunderstood the nature of the book, which is a work of theology, not catechesis.

Mueller knows he's tough-loving: "I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language." Best not to mince words. For the head of the CDF to repeat the canard that Johnsons "writings" suffer from grave doctrinal errors does a great disservice to a great theologian. Mueller is in charge of the CDF now. He's not a professor delivering a critique at a conference. If he's going to claim that a theologian's writings are doctrinally deficient--he ought to show his work, not sloppily dismiss them in an aside.

Why the sacramental break between East and West?

Well-educated Catholics know a thing or two about why the Great Schism, separating the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, occurred in the eleventh century. But most of us know just that -- only a thing or two. I'll include myself in that group: when students ask me, I say something about the filioque and papal authority.

A recent piece by historian George Demacopoulos posted on the blog of the Greek Archdiocese of North America shows the importance of contextualizing the split in the fuller contexts of canon law and the Crusades. He asks: "[H]ow exactly did it come to pass that the Orthodox Church forbid sacramental union (baptisms, marriages, the Eucharist, etc.) with Western Christians in the first place?"

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New issue, now live

Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:

“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.

Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.

And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal. 

Pope’s old friend, Rabbi Skorka, confirms Francis’s “total commitment” to the Jews

Tuesday night at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Rabbi Abraham Skorka spoke informally about his old friend, whom he calls “Bergoglio.” Talking in English on the topics of theology, Jewish-Christian relations, and the themes of Pope Francis’s pontificate, the Argentine Jewish leader combined memorable anecdotes with substantive reflections.

The event, “Pope Francis and the Jews,” was a unique opportunity for the mixed audience—mostly Jews—to hear behind-the-scenes stories about Francis, while also watching Skorka engage questions from Dr. Celia Deutsch, a Sister of Our Lady of Sion and professor of religion at Barnard College.

Since they co-authored a book of dialogues together, On Heaven and Earth (2010), the close relationship between the respective leaders of Jews and Catholics in Argentina has been well known. But recent months have shown the friendship to be deeper and more casual than many had realized. “Since he became pope, our friendship has become stronger,” Skorka said last night.

A long portion of the conversation focused on theology. Deutsch introduced a question by drawing a distinction between how theology is practiced in “the Global North,” especially North America and Europe, and what she sees in Skorka and Francis from the Global South. Theology in the Global North is often written by university professors for university professors, she noted, but “you two do accessible theology.” Skorka accepted the compliment: “Bergoglio and I agree, theology is not just for professionals.” The “task of theology” is easy to explain, he continued. “How to build a connection with God, respecting your neighbor.”

Skorka connected Francis’s “accessible” theology to his overall personality. Bergoglio is a “very pragmatic person,” he said. Yes, he “studied a lot,” but “first and foremost, he wants to pragmatize theology.” He has a “simple way, with simple words,” but a “very deep message.”

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New stories on the homepage

Just posted to the homepage, two new stories. In this web-exclusive response to Germain Grisez, Dennis O’Brien writes on Francis and the character of Christian truth:

It is often commented that unlike many other great sages and spiritual leaders of humankind, Jesus never wrote a word; his impact was in live speech. The primacy of live speech, face-to-face communication, is a deep lesson about the nature of Christian truth and teaching. I believe that Pope Francis in the interview places the particular person speaking prior to instruction. The interview with Civilità Cattolica starts with “Who is Jorge Maria Bergoglio?” The answer: “I am a sinner—a sinner who has been forgiven by Christ.” For Francis, the voice that claims to teach the truths of Christianity is the voice of a forgiven sinner. Grisez might counter that this is all very well for Bergoglio, but not for one charged with the office of pope. The pope should speak in a “universal” voice, not as Ratzinger or Bergoglio. I think a universal voice fails to carry the full Christian message, and that is the radical shift that Pope Francis effects. Face-to-face is the site of Christian teaching.

Also posted: E. J. Dionne Jr. on where Obamacare is working, and where it isn’t.

States that created their own healthcare exchanges -- and especially those that did this while also expanding Medicaid coverage -- are providing health insurance to tens of thousands of happy customers, in so many cases for the first time.

Those seeking a model for how the law is supposed to operate should look to Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat in a red state, has embraced with evangelical fervor the cause of covering 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians. …

Beshear urges us to keep our eyes on the interests of those the law is intended to serve, our uninsured fellow citizens. "These 640,000 people are not some set of aliens,” he says. “They’re our friends and neighbors ... some of them are members of our families.” As for the troubled national website, Beshear offered this: “If I could give unsolicited advice to the critics, and maybe to the media, it’s: Take a deep breath.”

Wise counsel. But there can be no denying the system failure that is a profound embarrassment to the Obama administration and threatens to undermine all the good the law could do, since its enemies will use any excuse to discredit it.

New issue, new stories

Our Theology issue is now live on the website. You can find the full table of contents here; following are some highlights.

In “Why Study God,” John C. Cavadini writes on the role of theology at a Catholic university:

“By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism.” This passage from John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides a characterization of the distinctiveness of a Catholic university. It is, he says, a kind of “witness.” This term can sound somewhat strange in an academic context, and I draw attention to it, in part, for that reason. Witness is not a category that one finds applied to secular universities very often, if ever, though I imagine that even secular universities would count themselves as bearing witness in some way to values such as social justice, equality, and inclusiveness. According to Ex corde, however, the witness of a Catholic university is connected to the church’s work of evangelization, and that seems to up the ante. A Catholic university, though proceeding “from the heart of the church,” is still not the same as the church itself, and its witness can’t take exactly the same form as the witness of a parish or a diocese. So what would that witness be—“so vitally important,” as the pope says, “in cultures,” such as our own, “marked by secularism”? Of course, this witness may take many forms in various campus activities, but here I am looking for the “institutional” witness, the witness that must be encoded into the very thing that makes a university a university—namely, its intellectual life, its mode of intellectual inquiry. Here, we find a crucial connection to theology as a discipline.

Theology is the “study of God” (Theos-logos). That sounds weird and pretty subjective. After all, God seems rather reclusive, not normally offering the divine self as an object of study. How could God be studied? How could one ever control such study? How could one keep it from becoming hopelessly subjective and fanciful? The study of God (as opposed to the study of religion) might sound like the study of an illusion of our own making. Unless, of course, one believes that God has in fact presented the divine self to us. It is God’s self-presentation, God’s “revelation,” that is the subject of theological study. Theology begins from faith in God’s self-revelation and moves toward “understanding” what God has revealed. It is in that way the study of God—or, as St. Anselm famously put it, “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is the only discipline that has as its proper object God’s revelation.

In “Darwin’s Nagging Doubt,” John F. Haught looks at what Thomas Nagel could learn from theology:

Although he has no use for theology, Nagel’s attempt to make mind essential to our understanding of the universe would find support in two science-friendly theological thinkers. Before the middle of the last century the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was already calling for a “new physics” that makes the phenomenon of “thought” essential to our understanding of the cosmos. He lamented the fact that the materialists of his own day were unwilling to “see” that the emergence of the human mind in evolution is not a local, terrestrial anomaly but a key to what the cosmos as a whole is all about. Nagel could find additional support for his proposals in the work of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904–84). No one has more brilliantly linked mind to evolution and the cosmos while simultaneously giving us a good reason to trust our minds. Unfortunately, it is hard to find well-known contemporary philosophers of mind who are familiar with Lonergan’s work. That’s a pity. In  his magisterial Insight (1957) and elsewhere, Lonergan demonstrates that if our worldview is out of joint with what goes on in our minds—in every act of attending, understanding, knowing, and deciding—then we need to look for another worldview. He would agree with Nagel that materialism doesn’t work, not least because it logically subverts the trust required for our minds to work at all.

Also on the website today, Michael Peppard on whether it makes sense to call Pope Francis a liberal. “For that matter,” Peppard asks, “can any faithful Catholic—a word that means ‘universal’—be described as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’?" Read the whole story here.

Crime and Punishment

God help me, I’m still rooting for Walt.

I’m certainly not blind to the evil he has done: the killings he has committed or ordered, the way that lies--even the ones he tells himself--have come to define his life, the destruction his “product” has wreaked on the lives of thousands of people he has never met.  I understand why many viewers are taking, if not pleasure, then a certain degree of righteous satisfaction in the judgment being visited upon him.  What goes around comes around.  Ye reap as ye sow.

Yet from the beginning of the show, there was something in me that connected with Walt.  Not with his choices, to be sure, but with the existential situation that gave rise to those choices.

I’ve done enough men’s ministry to know that the age of 50--Walt’s age at the beginning of the show--is often a crisis point for many men.  By the time a man reaches that age (and I’m getting pretty close), the trajectory of his life is largely set.  From what once may have seemed an infinite array of options, the choices he has made at each stage of his life have progressively narrowed the next set of choices. 

It’s true that those choices allow you to live more intensively rather than extensively, to go deep rather than broad.  There may be less “freedom,” but life is generally richer for having made those choices.

But there are times--usually in the middle of the night when the devil does his best work--when the shadow side of those choices emerges from a dark place in your soul.  You can begin to feel as if you have lost control of your life, that you are merely reading a script that your younger self has written.   You look around and see friends and family members who are no smarter and no more hardworking than you, but who seemed to have grabbed the brass ring while your hand came up empty.  Even if you have advanced in your career, this is often the point at which you realize the number of musical chairs is diminishing and there may not be one left for you when the music stops.

Yes, there are stories of people who have radically reinvented themselves in mid-life.  But that never seems to be you, does it?  Marriage, children, an underwater mortgage, overdue bills that keep your credit rating on the ragged edge of disaster, they all seem like obstacles to the new life you crave and feel you deserve.

This is the point at which many men “break bad” in ways large and small.  While Walt’s cancer is the spark, it is this broader emotional context that provides the tinder.  But in the same way that most college students infatuated with Nietzsche don’t bludgeon the local pawnbroker with an axe, most men suffering from a mid-life crisis do not become lords of a multi-state methamphetamine empire.  Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Walter White is a fictional character whose story is made extreme to illuminate a psychological and spiritual narrative that speaks more universally.  Even the character’s name--Walter White--suggests some kind of everyman, a symbol of the downwardly mobile white middle class whose anger has done much to shape our current politics.

When I saw that I am rooting for Walt, I want to be clear what I mean.  I’m not rooting for him to triumph over his enemies in an orgy of redemptive violence, although I fear that may be where we are headed.  To steal a line said to Michael Corleone by Cardinal Luciani in The Godfather III, Walt’s sins are great.  It is right that he suffers.  His sins are great enough to be beyond any meaningful human forgiveness.

Am I suggesting then, that my desired end would be for Walt, like Raskolnikov, to embrace Jesus Christ?  If Walt were a real person, that would very much be my wish.  Fictionally, though, I’m not sure how Vince Gilligan could pull that off without it seeming false and sentimental.  Sentimentality in art does not advance the cause of Christ.

What I am hoping for is that Walt can encounter God’s forgiveness in a form he can accept, a form that will allow him to acknowledge the true depth of his depravity without despairing of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  It is the hope that Walt can, in some mysterious way, make the words of St. Paul his own: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8).

Discerning the Body

I was intrigued by the conversation that ensued in response to Paul Moses’ essay in the WSJ a few weeks ago in which he spoke of how his father’s death had become the occasion of a powerful experience of Christian community.  “I saw a theological term made real,” wrote Moses, “that God’s people make up the body of Christ.”

I’ve recently had an experience like the one Paul described. One of the reasons for my absence from these pages over the past few months is that my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. Since then we have been walking a difficult path that has included surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, with more treatment to follow. My wife’s care has been excellent, however, and we have every reason to hope for a full and complete recovery.

Like Paul, I have been overwhelmed by and deeply grateful for the support we have received from family, friends and our parish community. The phrase “I’ll pray for you” can all too easily become a commonplace. In this case, however, we truly feel that the prayers of others have become a palpable thing, holding us and healing us when our own strength--particularly mine--falters.

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Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Panel Discussion of Pope Francis (Fordham, Sept 9)

Perhaps of interest to Commonwealers in the New York area: Fordham University will be kicking off the new school year with a panel discussion of Pope Francis's pontificate. The panelists are three distinguished theologians (but they're letting me come too).

More importantly, we'll be welcoming Rachel Zoll, religion reporter for the AP, to keep us in line.

More information about "Six Months of Pope Francis" and RSVP online HERE.

Monday, September 9. 5:30 PM. Lincoln Center campus.

New issue is live

Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.

Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.