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Paul Ryan, Clever Fellow

The Internet is abuzz with the rumor that Paul Ryan wants to reintroduce pre-existing health condition denials of insurance into the American health care system. In fact, that's not the plan. But has Ryan finally figured out a way that the Republicans can attack Obamacare in a way that sticks?

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Data on Faith, Faith in Data?

According to the Diocese of Raleigh, just 5 percent of North Carolina’s approximately 420,000 Catholics are native to the state. Thus about 399,000 have arrived from somewhere else, helping not only to double North Carolina’s Catholic population over the last two decades, but also to foster the hopeful notion that Catholicism is thriving in certain parts of the nation. Indeed, the South in general has seen an uptick in its Catholic population, with 27 percent of the nation’s Catholics now residing there, up from 24 percent in 2004, according to Pew. In the same period, those figures dropped from 29 percent to 26 percent in the Northeast, and from 24 to 21 percent in the Midwest, strongholds built over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries thanks in no small part to Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendents.

Who’s fueling the southern boomlet? To a large extent, immigrants—the majority from Mexico and Central America, and many of the rest from Vietnam and the Philippines. But a significant number of the non-native Catholics are transplants from those old strongholds up north, including retirees lured by the weather and lower cost of living, as well as young professionals lured by jobs in corporate centers like Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Atlanta. Those cities and their surrounding suburbs are of course growing in general. The population of North Carolina’s southeastern Brunswick County, for example, is projected to hit nearly 130,000 in 2019, almost double what it was at the turn of the millennium. (By way of disclosure and illustration, I have family in the region, and when I visit I am struck by the number of people I meet who are originally from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois, many Catholic. This anecdotal evidence adds flesh to impersonal statistics indicating that the rise in the South’s Catholic population is tied to the drop in the North’s.)  

The demographic shift is seen in some areas as an opportunity to try new approaches to establishing and nurturing vibrant Catholic communities. Regional characteristics and behaviors like relatively low population densities and the entrenched driving lifestyle, for instance, could guide capital planning and resource allocation in a way that might mitigate against what seems in retrospect the “overbuilding” of churches and other infrastructure in the northern cities and suburbs, the closures and consolidations of which have been painful for those whose parishes had defined their communities. The multicultural quality of congregations could offer (and in many cases, already is offering) new opportunities for cross-cultural outreach and enrichment. And the South’s largely Christian culture might itself factor in. Interviewees in a recent report on Catholicism in the southern United States by OSV Newsweekly spoke of finding it easier to be open and “intentional” about faith given evangelical, black Protestant, and mainline Protestant neighbors who live theirs so outwardly. An Atlanta-area woman originally from New York said being challenged by Protestant friends on why she’s Catholic has “really pushed me to figure out and to learn why we do what we do.” Up north, she said, you answered the question by saying “because mommy does it and grandma does it. And that’s all you need to know.”

But positive regional trends continue to run up against larger general ones.

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Can Francis’s Idea of European Catholicism Work Against Trumpism?

Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.

Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”

While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.

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Is Now the Time for Women Deacons?

"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful. It displays Francis's openness to scholarship, to history and, most importantly, to the needs of the church."

In her Commonweal article, Zagano specifically addressed scholarship, history, and needs of the church: 

While women were included in the order of deacon, not only in the early church but at least until the twelfth century in the West (and in the East up to modern times), the historical fact of women ordained as deacons is apparently not sufficient to call women back to that order today. Early documents point to bishops selectively ordaining—or not ordaining—women according to the needs of their dioceses. While the church has changed in many respects since women deacons were common, the fact that the church calls forth the people it needs for certain ministries has not changed. ...

[I]f reconciliation with the women of the church—especially with the women of the church in the United States and the developed world—is an issue of interest, then ordaining women as deacons becomes a genuine necessity. But even the most convincing political argument will not hold sway unless the church as a whole agrees with individual conferences of bishops, and then individual bishops, that the ordained ministry of women is necessary in their dioceses, their provinces, and throughout the world.

Diaconal ministry—of the word, the liturgy, and of charity—is clearly necessary everywhere. The service provided by the deacon at liturgy is the smallest part of the deacon’s charge—even as it is the most symbolic. The ministry of the deacon is to carry the gospel, literally as well as symbolically, and with it the charity of the church in all its forms. When deacons are involved, the soup kitchens and the religious education programs, the homeless shelters and the adult formation meetings gain new connection to the parish and ultimately to the bishop.

Of course, this small excerpt doesn't fully convey the scope of Zagano's piece. Whether or not you read it when it originally appeared in 2012, it's worth reading today in full

Catholicism’s Post-Vatican II ‘Narrative Gap’

In praising Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò on his retirement from the post of apostolic nuncio to the United States, George Weigel wrote that there is “no honorable retreat from what some deplored as ‘culture wars.’” Weigel was obviously alluding to what some consider Pope Francis’s inappropriate positions on divisive issues, especially sexual morality. But in fact the social justice Catholicism of Pope Francis does not signal a retreat from the culture wars. It is simply part of the reception of Vatican II by much of the rest of global Catholicism. Our perception of what Catholicism is today is influenced by the way we perceive its recent history. It is not simply a matter of theological or political options that shape our understanding of the church. It is also a matter of periodization, that is, our way to frame what happened, and when.

I recently spent a week in Santiago, Chile, in seminars and meetings at the Jesuit University Alberto Hurtado and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile with colleagues studying Vatican II and the post-Vatican-II period in Latin America. What this experience confirmed for me is that, when it comes to contemporary post-Vatican-II Catholicism, there are different narratives in different parts of the world, with a particular gap between the European-North American narrative and the Latin-American one.

For much of the west, the post-Vatican-II period is marked by Humanae vitae (1968), which for many seemed to solidify how the church saw its relationship to the modern world, and which consequently set off a sociopolitical shift, especially in “sub-narratives” linked to issues of family and marriage. In the United States, for example, a key moment came with 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision; in Italy, it was a series of popular referenda on both divorce and abortion in the 1970s and ’80s.

In Latin America, however, the key issues post-Vatican II were different.

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The Joy of Love

I’m writing today about a remarkable Catholic couple and their marriage, life, and death together. My wife, daughter and I went to Maine last weekend to attend a wake and funeral mass for Lucille and Robert Robinson, parents of one of my best friends, Michael Robinson. Married for sixty-three years, Lucille and Bob died within six hours of one another—on the same night—as they slept side-by-side in the assisted-living facility where they’d been living, in declining health, for two years. They were ninety-three and ninety-five years old, respectively.

Their wake was at a funeral home in downtown Portland, a stately former residence whose rooms were filled with Robinson family photographs and memorabilia, creating a warmly domestic feeling as the couple’s four children, nine grandchildren and many friends gathered to exchange sympathy and stories. I had certainly never been to a double spousal wake before, and it was deeply comforting and apt to see husband and wife in mutual repose, their caskets arrayed alongside one another. Both held rosaries, and on Bob’s chest lay the medal and insignia of the pontifical honor of the Order of St. Gregory, which he received—twice—for his service to the church. Around the room the panoply of photos brought back the couple’s youth; especially lovely was a dashing shot of the two smiling out the back window of the car as they drove off from their wedding in 1952.

The Robinsons’ story forms a template for American Catholic life in the last century. Growing up during the Great Depression, both Lucille and Bob served in the military during World War II, she as a Navy nurse, he as an Army sergeant. After war’s end they returned to join the wave of vets whose belated college educations and subsequent hard-working lives helped propel postwar America to world dominance. The first members of their immigrant families (hers Italian, his Irish) to attain higher education, they both attended Boston College, where they met at a party during Lent in 1951. At the party, as they drank lukewarm beer, Lucille wondered aloud when Mass was being held—and Bob quickly recited the schedule. Piety and warm beer: it turned out to be the perfect recipe for romance. The couple was married within a year, inaugurating a family tradition, since thirty-five years later their son Mark would also meet his future wife at B.C.—as would Michael as well, five years after that. Maybe the college could use this in its marketing effort. Meet your Mate at B.C.!

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‘We Seek to Open the Eyes of Our Friends’: Daniel Berrigan in the Pages of Commonweal

The funeral Mass for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, will be celebrated Friday morning at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Over the course of several years in the 1960s and early '70s, Commonweal featured a number of pieces both by and about the noted peace activist and poet. Here we present a selection of articles from our archives, with excerpts.

From “How to Make a Difference,” by Daniel Berrigan, August 7, 1970:

What we seek, acting coolly, politically, out of the truth of our lives and tradition is to pull the mask of legitimacy from the inhuman and blind face of power. We seek at the same time, to open the eyes of more and more of our friends, to bring a larger community of resistance into being. We seek moreover to awaken to the facts of life, those Americans who continue to grasp at the straws of this or that political promise; and so put off, day after day, year after year, the saving act of resistance, allow innocent men to be imprisoned, guiltless men to be kicked out of America, good men to die.

But if even a few men say no, courageously, constantly, clear-sightedly, more men will be drawn to say no; fewer men likewise will continue to say yes, and so to lose their manhood, their soul, their brothers.

From “Selma and Sharpeville,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 9, 1965:

The Gospel of Saint John, in the Zulu tongue, so strange to American ears; sibilants and the clicking of tongues, with only the names Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, coming through. And about the third hour, they crucified Him . . . . A white priest, in the pulpit of the black church; my fellow Christians. He can hardly remember what he had to say to them. But at the end, the veneration of the Cross. A, great wave starts forward: mothers with children, young men, the very old. Three priests move among them, holding the crucifix to their lips.

And spontaneously, as is the way with Africans, the chant starts; first, as one voice, hardly rising above the sough of bare feet, that sound which above all sounds is like the sea, on a mild evening. The song is the Zulu dirge for a fallen warrior. They are bearing Him homeward to his village after battle. His name is Jesus, great King, black Warrior. Easily, with infinite delicacy and naturalness, the song breaks into harmony; two parts, then four, then eight, as a yolk divides, or a cell . . . Jesus, great Warrior, we mourn you. O the beauty, the youth, the empty place. Who shall plead for us, who shall lift our faces, who shall speak wisdom?

The Zulus have a saying: he who is behind must run faster than he who is in front. Even to the Cross. Even when the Cross is held in white hands. Shall the white man time us, even to the Cross? Does he any longer even know the way?

From “Notes from the Underground, or, I Was a Fugitive from the FBI,” by Daniel Berrigan, May 29, 1970:

May 7 marks exactly a month since I packed the small red bag I had bought in Hanoi, and set out from Cornell, looking for America. So far, it has been a tougher and longer voyage than the one which set me down in North Vietnam some two years before.

In the course of that month, I have changed domicile some six times; this in strict accord with a rule of the Jesuit Order, making us, at least in principle, vagabonds on mission; 'It is our vocation to travel to any place in the world where the greater glory of God and the need of the neighbor shall impel us.' Amen, brothers.

It may be time for a modest stock-taking. The gains sought by such felonious vagrancy as mine, are in the nature of things, modest to the point of imposing silence on the wise. The 'nature of things' being defined simply as: power. It is entirely possible that any hour of any day may bring an end to the game; the wrong chance meeting, a thoughtless word of a friend, a phone tip the possibilities are without end. But one takes this for granted, and goes on, knowing that practically all of us are powerless, that the line dividing the worth of one's work from inertia and discouragement is thin indeed. (What manner of man today exudes confidence, moral spleen, righteousness, sense of messiahship at once cocksure, and dead serious? God, who grants us very little these days, at least keeps us from that.)

From “My Brother the Witness,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 26, 1968:

[I]n general, the bishops have played the war straight American. And the war's end will probably find few of them in any way interiorly changed in their understanding of the Church, of the meaning of violence, or indeed of their own office.

Which is not to say that the Church has felt no tremors. It is only to suggest that in the Catholic instance, the power structure has followed the culture, its sedulous ape. Still, in an exciting and even unique way, the war has altered the face of the Church as no former American war has done. For the first time in our national history, significant numbers of Catholics, including a few priests, are in trouble.

The war has also seriously thrown into disarray the timetable of renewal which the Church had set for itself. That schedule included beyond doubt the building of strong, open and affectionate relationships between the bishops and their communities. Alas, alas. The war has deepened and widened a tragic cleavage which issues like birth control, school systems, speech and its freedoms and unfreedoms, control of properties and income, had already opened.

From “Taking Fr. Berrigan Seriously,” by the Editors, August 7, 1970:

There are various ways of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. The easiest is to dismiss him, his brother and the other destroyers of draft files at Baltimore, Catonsville, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as "kooks" or "romantics" … There is, however, another, more sophisticated way of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. Which is to follow his exploits vicariously while avoiding one's own responsibilities, to nod admiringly at his words, and then to return him to that corner niche conveniently reserved for plaster saints. …

Father Berrigan is far too significant a figure to be dismissed in either of these ways without risking great loss. He, and his brother Philip, are calling for a moral revolution, a regeneration that is based on the personal conversion of individuals through acts which break them off from established powers of the world and which link them, through suffering and the fate of being outcast, with the poor and the oppressed. Now that message is not exactly "political," as we have come to understand politics in the age when ideologies are supposedly outdated. The Berrigans' message is sometimes mysterious, incomplete, paradoxical; and we confess to suffering something of a "metaphor gap" with Daniel Berrigan when he writes of future political change as putting on a "new garment," creating "a new mankind." Their message, to the scandalizing of some and the embarrassment of many, is however very much the message of the Gospel; and the problems they present, mystery and metaphors and all, are precisely the problems the Gospel presents.

We do not want to dismiss Daniel Berrigan, nor to canonize him, nor to co-opt him. We wish to respond to him from our own position, agreeing and disagreeing, hoping that the dialogue may prove useful to the antiwar movement and the church.... [continue reading here]

From the Archives: The Radical Lives & Times of Daniel & Philip Berrigan

Amid the many remembrances of Daniel Berrigan, I want to highlight a biography of him and his brother Philip that was reviewed in Commonweal by David O'Brien in 1997. The review itself paints a fuller picture of the "life and times" in which the Berrigan brothers were shaped, and describes the significance of how they went on to shape the lives and times of many others—particularly American Catholics.

We get a glimpse of the Berrigans' family life in upstate New York. They grew up in the Depression with a father who "brooded over his failures," whose "anger overwhelmed the love of their mother, and who made leaving home easier." Yet "Dado" left copies of the Catholic Worker around the house and helped set up a Catholic Interracial Council in Syracuse, exposing his sons to Catholic social teaching. The brothers began creating discomfort "amid the conformist self-congratulations of fifties' Catholicism":

 It began as fairly modest efforts to awaken the lay apostolate and challenge the church's own racism, then to respond to Pope John XXIII and the council, then to confront their country's bloody war in Vietnam.

By then, O'Brien summarizes, a Catholic peace movement was capturing national attention, and it seemed the church at all levels began to face the problems that had long troubled them. "But it was never enough," O'Brien writes, "less because [the Berrigans] were radicals, which they were, than that the nation's capacity for violence, and self-deception, was far greater than anyone suspected."

The biographers make clear the difficulties Daniel and Philip each faced as priests and laity: "Both loved being part of the church, and were hurt that some Catholics seemed more angry at them than at the warmakers."

On nuclear weapons, "the most important issue of their time," O'Brien concludes:

[T]hey faced the truth while far too many spent their talents seeking ways to justify the unjustifiable. The gifted moderates now seem convinced that they helped 'our' side 'win' the cold war, while the Berrigans still prefer, in Dan's words, 'to be as marginal as possible to madness.' It is possible that only on those margins, with people like these that alternatives to madness can be imagined, a necessary step to the much desired renewal of our country and our church.

You can read the full review here.

An Interview with Elizabeth McAlister (1971)

In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan. This interview may now be of interest to those curious about how Berrigan and his companions understood their actions at the time.

Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?

Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.

HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?

EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself be­comes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.

HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.

EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.

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What Does the Sanders 'Invitation' Say About the Vatican, and Sanders?

The Vatican’s “invitation” to Bernie Sanders to speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS) on Friday has sparked a range of reactions. There are those who say it’s irresponsible for Sanders to travel right after his Thursday night debate with Hillary Clinton to give a ten-minute talk in Rome, just four days before the New York primary. There are those who see in it an attempt by the (male) Catholic establishment to block the election of a woman to the White House. Some see it as an endorsement of “the Jewish progressive agenda,” others as a direct attempt by Francis to advance a leftist agenda in U.S. politics.

None of this is true, so it’s not worth the time to dispute the accusations (except the one about Francis meddling in U.S. politics; we’ll get to that). But this comedy of errors does reveal something interesting about Francis’s Vatican and its politics.

It’s clear by now that the invitation, word of which emerged April 8, didn’t come from Pope Francis, or from the Secretariat of State, or from anyone who usually invites political leaders or accepts requests for audiences. It came instead from Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (originally from Argentina), chancellor of PASS. He bypassed Margaret Archer, its president, who was not shy in making public her surprise, saying it was a “monumental discourtesy” for Sanders to ask for an invitation without going through her office. Bishop Sorondo responded that Archer was aware of the invitation, in effect accusing her of lying.  

At some point over the weekend of April 8, somebody in the Vatican who is close to Pope Francis was told of the potential negative consequences of letting an American presidential candidate speak at the conference–a candidate who by that time had claimed on MSNBC that the invitation had come “from the Vatican” and who on ABC’s “The View” confirmed that the invitation had come from Francis, and that he would be meeting with the pope. 

It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have issued such an invitation just as Amoris Laetitia was being released; also unlikely is that it would risk a Sanders visit distracting from Francis’s meeting with refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16. But at this point it was too late for the Vatican to disinvite him; Sanders had announced his visit publicly.

What is not unimaginable is that the Vatican did its best to dissuade Sanders from coming by scheduling him to speak at 4 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. Eastern) on Friday, which would be just hours after the end of his Thursday night debate in Brooklyn. If it was meant as a signal—“please don’t come”—it either wasn’t received by the Sanders team, or wasn’t interpreted as such. Next, the Vatican tried to ignore Sanders and downplayed the pending visit; over the course of several press conferences, Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, never once mentioned Sanders. Only today (April 14) did he do so, officially announcing that Francis would not be meeting with the candidate.

We will see what actually happens in Rome on Friday. But for now, it’s worth considering the following.

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What Is Francis Saying with 'Amoris Laetitia'?

Amoris Laetitia, the fruit of the long “synodal process” that unfolded between 2014 and 2015, is in keeping with what we’ve come to understand as Pope Francis’s pastoral and nonacademic style. The exhortation draws from his previous catechesis and that of John Paul II, as well as from the documents of bishops’ conferences around the world. And, at 52,500 words, it is very long. But how does the document actually address the at-times contentiously debated issues that arose in the course of the two synod gatherings in Rome?

If there’s an interpretative key, it’s this statement that appears early on in the text: “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” Yet Amoris Laetitia is a carefully constructed document that will give none of the most vocal factions on opposing sides of an issue any reason to claim “victory” or “defeat.” Pope Francis has issued an exhortation that represents the first attempt by a pope to demonstrate how the episcopal collegiality of Vatican II is supposed to work. Relying heavily on the final synod reports of 2014 and 2015, the document takes into account the real and divisive debates that took place at the synod on the issues of family, marriage and divorce, and homosexuality. In its section on the pastoral accompaniment of difficult situations, for example, Francis quotes extensively from the three paragraphs of the synod’s final 2015 report that  received the highest number of negative votes: Paragraph 84 (seventy-two “no” votes); 85 (eighty “no” votes); and 86 (sixty-four “no” votes).  

Amoris Laetitia is generally characterized by three identifiable types of text. The first type draws from Francis’s previous teaching to help illustrate his intentions and where he wants to lead the Church; another seems to strive for compromise between the orientations that became evident in the course of synodal debate. The third touches on gender, on the masculine and the feminine, and on education in the family; it is the weakest part of the document.

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The Exhortation Expectations Game

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s post-synod apostolic exhortation, will be released this Friday, and the secrecy surrounding it is greater than usual. No doubt this is partly because of the sensitiveness of the issues involved, but it's also likely because the Vatican wants to guard against a leak like the one that allowed early publication of Laudato si' last June. Still, this hasn’t discouraged a pre-publication exercise in managing (or spinning) expectations.

Amoris Laetitia will plainly be a hugely important document on family and marriage, a substantial update of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981). And that explains the interest and commentary preceding it. Consider interviews given this week to Crux’s John Allen by two of the most visible prelates in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each reveals something about the relationship between the American church and this pontificate.

Cardinal Dolan’s comments on the exhortation are illustrative of the worries some have about the “Francis effect” on American Catholicism. He sounds in some ways like the successor to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in how he expresses surprise and qualms at just what Pope Francis is doing. He gives the pontiff the benefit of the doubt perhaps—but little else. “There’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to,” Dolan says, reporting on what he has heard from a fellow Catholic about the “confusion” caused by Francis without really disputing it: “Some wag said to me, and I think he was onto something, ‘Probably what we’ll get after the apostolic exhortation is some confusion, which would not be new, because that’s what we’ve got now.’” It’s clear where Dolan stands from how he answers a question about the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics: “Of course, there’s a conservative approach to the internal forum solution that the most conservative canonists and theologians have defended forever,” Dolan says. “I think the fear among many of us, however, is that if anything, things have become a little bit too lax.” This is actually the opposite of Francis’s take on the role of the law in the church (here's just one of the many possible examples). Surprisingly, Dolan seems to approach the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics in terms of their numbers, characterizing those who want to come back to full Eucharistic communion with the church as “a very distinct minority.” “I wish there were more,” he tells Allen. “Most people have said, ‘I didn’t know that’s what the church teaches,’ or 'They have no right to teach that, so I’m not going to obey them,’ or, ‘Who cares, I don’t go [to Mass] anyway.’ And the last group is the largest one.” The issue of inclusivity in the church, whether it’s through restoration of Eucharistic communion or some other way of welcoming back those who’ve left it, seems to be absent from Dolan’s pre-publication comments about Amoris Laetitia.

Meanwhile, in an interview that appeared twenty-four hours later, Cardinal Wuerl reminds Catholics (and his fellow bishops, as he did during the Synod last October) that Francis is the pope and that you don’t get to pick and choose among popes.

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From the Archives: A Review of Raymond Arroyo's Mother Angelica Biography

The death on Easter Sunday of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, has received coverage both in the United States and abroad, with obituaries both brief and lengthy, along with remembrances, accounts of her last days, and articles on everything from her legacy as a “female broadcasting titan” to her impact on tourism in Alabama, where EWTN is headquartered.

In 2005, Michael O. Garvey reviewed Raymond Arroyo's biography of Mother Angelica for Commonweal. Some excerpts follow.

The most conspicuous concern of Arroyo’s narrative is what he describes as Mother Angelica’s “public and private war for the future of the Catholic Church.” [His] reconnaissance of the battlefield is as predictable and prepackaged as anything else on big network news: on one side are Our Lord, Mother Angelica, and EWTN. On the other are “recreant bishops and theologians” and the “liberal church in America,” an amorphous conspiracy promoting eucharistic irreverence, gender-inclusive liturgical language, and altar girls. ... What readers make of the story will likely depend on which side they choose to take in this war, or whether they believe such a war is going on to begin with. ...

[Mother Angelica’s] relations with other sisters were, as her relations with so many of her coreligionists are now, tumultuous and overly susceptible to what she describes as “my Italian temper.” … [T]his shrewd woman with a sense of divine mission [had] an eye for the main chance. She had a quick wit, a gregarious manner, and an evangelical bent. Calling herself “a conservative liberal who happens to be charismatic,” she had become a popular speaker on prayer and the spiritual life. ...

The rags-to-riches growth of EWTN composes the background of the rest of the story, while the foreground concerns Mother Angelica’s ongoing battle against the encroachments of (American) ecclesial bureaucrats, her enlistment of more highly ranked (Vatican) bureaucrats, and her jeremiads against the dreaded “liberal church in America.” Nobody in these pages comes off very well. If Mother Angelica occasionally seems little more than a foul-tempered old harridan who confuses the promptings of her ego with the imperatives of the Holy Spirit, her opponents just as often seem little more than disingenuous defenders of their own institutional prestige.

You can read Garvey’s full review here. On Friday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over the funeral Mass for Mother Angelica; it will be broadcast live from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on EWTN.

Aristocrat or Zealot? Another Way to Think about Bishops

One of Pope Francis’s biggest challenges is how to contend with the character of the current episcopate. Over the last few decades, the culture and the temperament of Catholic bishops have changed, and not just in the United States. But rather than viewing this in terms of the usual “liberal” vs. “conservative” dichotomy, there may be another way to look at the situation.

I recently discovered a brilliant article from 1982 by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Monique de Saint Martin, titled “La Sainte Famille” (“The Holy Family”), which examines the relationship between the French episcopate and clerical power in the 20th century. The authors argued that in 20th-century France there were basically two kinds of bishops. One type, “les héritiers,” came from the Catholic “aristocracy,” not in the sense of being descended from earls or counts but in the sense of being sure of their inherited Catholic identity, able to wear it comfortably while mediating between modern theology and modern culture. Les héritiers typically studied “secular” disciplines in secular or non-Catholic institutions and didn’t feel compelled to over-emphasize their Catholicism to affirm themselves in their social network, in their cultural environs, or in the Church. They didn’t worry too much about having a good career in the Church because their social capital, their intellectual formation, and their emotional investment were not tied to the Church alone.

The second type of bishop—whom the authors refer to as “les oblats”—came from more humble backgrounds. Less confident of their Catholic identity and their role in society, they thus dedicated themselves to the institution of the Church, studying theology only, and only in an ecclesiastical setting. They were prone to making statements not only vis-à-vis modernity but also vis-à-vis the Church establishment. With Catholicism providing entry into a new social realm, les oblats became, according to the authors, “zealots” and administrators whose deep care for the institutional Church sprang from the fact that the institutional Church was almost all they had.

Bourdieu and Saint Martin detected a rapid change in the French episcopate between the 1930s and the 1970s, with social background shaping its culture, even if not in a determining way. It is a fact that the 20th century was the first century in modern Church history in which members of the European aristocracy (in the traditional sense of the term) no longer had privileged access to the episcopacy. Yet some remained, and some still do: Cardinal Christoph von Schoenborn of Vienna (one of the most prominent students of Joseph Ratzinger, a fine theologian, and now a backer of Pope Francis) is the descendant of one of the most prominent families in European Church history. His complete name is Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid.

How to apply the analysis of Bourdieu and Saint Martin to the episcopate of today?

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The Fall of the House of Neuhaus

Back in 1991, the late Richard John Neuhaus penned a now-famous op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that Pope John Paul II’s latest social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, represented a decisive break with the past—a development of doctrine, even. The new encyclical, proclaimed Neuhaus, was nothing less than a “ringing endorsement of the market economy.” He went on to argue that Catholics who defended democratic socialism or a “third way” between capitalism and socialism were in “serious error.” He then wagged his finger at the US bishops’ pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, proclaiming it “unrepresentative of the Church’s authorative teaching.”

With the instincts of a seasoned politician, Neuhaus understood the importance of defining the narrative from the outset. He actually broke the encyclical’s embargo to do this, a serious ethical breach.

In this, Neuhaus had a team of supporters. George Weigel, for instance, echoed Neuhaus’s claim that this encyclical was part of a hermeneutic of discontinuity. “Centesimus Annus thus marks a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII,” he opined back in 1992. There was no ambiguity: the encyclical marked a “new departure in Catholic social thought.” Ten years later, Weigel was still proclaiming that Centesimus Annus “set the social doctrine of the Church on a new path by its endorsement of the free economy.”

Michael Novak also joined the chorus at the time: “The encyclical Centesimus Annus does what many of us had long hoped some church authority would do: it captures the spirit and essence of the American experiment in political economy,” he proclaimed. “Thus Pope John Paul II has brought economic liberty…into Catholic social teaching.”

And Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute weighed in too: “Centesimus Annus represents the beginnings of a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty.”

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'Prophecy Without Contempt': Watch Cathleen Kaveny, Peter Steinfels & Bishop Robert McElroy in Conversation

On Monday night in New York, Commonweal hosted “Prophecy Without Contempt,” a panel on religious discourse in the public square. Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, and former Commonweal editor and longtime contributor Peter Steinfels took up the question: Can religious speech bring dialogue and reconciliation, instead of division and resentment? Many people joined us in person for the lively and informative discussion that unfolded, and many more streamed the event live. If you weren’t able to be with us, or if you want to watch the discussion again, you can do so here. And feel free to keep the conversation going in comments.

In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

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The Road to Rome, by Way of Macedonia

Referring to the Vatican, English Catholic apologist Rev. Ronald Knox reputedly offered this caution: “Better not look too closely into the engine room.” In other words, best to behold the majestic barque of Peter from some distance, rather than exposing oneself to how the leaky vessel actually operates, for that way lies disillusionment and the road to apostasy. Sound advice, it would seem, and I’ve followed it religiously for nearly sixty-five years, visiting Italy twice but somehow managing to avoid Rome. (Like every literary wannabe, I’m a fool for Venice.)

That came to an end in December, thanks to an invitation to a conference on the persecution of Christians held at the Pontifical Urban University just outside the Vatican. I hope to write more on that important topic in the future. But first an initial report on some encounters during my travels.

At the very start, a certain missionary zeal marked my pilgrimage, though I personally could not lay claim to any such enthusiasm. Standing in line at JFK to board our Alitalia flight, I couldn’t help but notice an especially clean-cut young man in the line next to me. He was very carefully put together, wearing a sweater and neatly knotted tie under a smart-looking gray sports coat. His slacks were dark and his shoes polished; his jaw square and his brow unfurrowed. Pinned to his sports coat was a plastic badge, the sort a doctor might wear. I was intrigued, but could not make out the writing. The mystery was soon solved. Unprompted, the young man began a conversation with an older gentleman, an Italian, in front of him in line. “This is my first trip abroad,” the young man said in a clear voice. “I’m eighteen years old. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to Macedonia.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, since Macedonia had been in the news for having closed its borders to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Was the kid serious, or merely oblivious? It seemed unlikely that he had relatives in Macedonia.

“Excuse me sir,” the young man continued, the Italian gentleman now somewhat perplexed. “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? You know, the Mormons? I’m from Utah, and I’m going to Macedonia as a missionary. Would you like to know more about my church?”

The old man, as well as others within earshot, smiled with benevolent amusement, but none took up the young man on his offer. I assume that when boarding a jet for a four-thousand-mile trip over a vast ocean, one’s most atavistic religious instincts take hold. I certainly reach for my rosary. Do young Mormons immediately start honing their missionary pitch? Still, I was fascinated and even impressed with the teenager’s forthrightness. He seemed guileless, as eager to get down to business as St. Paul was to convert the uncircumcised. At eighteen I was barely able to tie my own shoes.

I was also humbled. About the last thing I imagine myself doing is offering a brief for the glories of Roman Catholic Church to a perfect stranger.

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Trump, Berlusconi & the Church

The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.

But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.

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Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

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