dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Archbishop Nienstedt under investigation. (UPDATED)

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being investigated for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men, according to the archbishop’s former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger. The investigation is being conducted by a law firm hired by the archdiocese. Nienstedt denies the allegations.

The investigation was spurred by information the archdiocese received late last year, according to another person with knowledge of the investigation. (This inquiry is not related to a December 2013 accusation that Nienstedt touched a boy’s buttocks during a confirmation photo shoot. The archbishop denied that allegation, and, following an investigation, the county prosecutor did not bring charges. Reportedly the case has been reopened.) Near the end of the year, it came to light that a former Twin Cities priest had accused Nienstedt of making unwanted sexual advances.

The archbishop agreed to hire an outside law firm to investigate the accusation. By early 2014, the archdiocese had selected the top-ranked Minneapolis firm of Greene Espel. Nienstedt, along with auxiliary bishops Lee Piché and Andrew Cozzens, flew to Washington, D.C., to inform the apostolic nuncio of the allegations. Over the course of the investigation, lawyers have interviewed current and former associates and employees of Nienstedt—including Haselberger, who resigned in protest in April 2013.

“Based on my interview with Greene Espel—as well as conversations with other interviewees—I believe that the investigators have received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Haselberger told me. What’s more, “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”

The allegations are nothing more than a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage,” Nienstedt said in a written statement. He also suspects that accusers are coming forward because of “difficult decisions” he has made, but, citing privacy laws, he would not elaborate.

“I have never engaged in sexual misconduct and certainly have not made any sexual advances toward anyone,” Nienstedt told me. “The allegations are a decade old or more, prior to my service as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” he continued, emphasizing that “none of the allegations involve minors or illegal or criminal behavior.” The “only accusation,” Nienstedt explained, is of “improper touching (of the person’s neck),” and was made by a former priest.

Read more

Massachusetts' Minimum Wage Hike Is A Catholic Victory Too

Yesterday Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation raising the state's minimum wage from $8.00/hour to $11.00/hour, by Janury 1, 2017.  That's the highest statewide minimum wage in the country.  It means full-time minimum wage workers in the Bay State can look forward to an additional $6,000 in annual income. 

Boston magazine's David Bernstein, one of the savviest political reporters in the commonwealth, noted earlier today that the minimum wage increase is further proof that Massachusetts has entered "a new Golden Age of Law-Making By Threat of Popular Vote", adding "I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing."

It's also a sign of the Catholic Church wielding political power in a different way than it sometimes has in the past.  At the heart of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition that gathered over 350,000 signatures to put initiatives to raise the Minimum Wage, and to create an Earned Sick Time benefit for all Massachusetts workers, before the legislature and the electorate are several faith-based community organizations affiliated with the Massachusetts Community Action Network.  Other faith-based community organizations (including the Merrimack Valley Project where---full disclosure---I do some work) also participated in the campaign.

Read more

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.

Read more

USCCB meeting live

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets today. Watch live here.

Meet your newest Tea Party Catholic

If you haven’t already collected your share of fast facts on David Brat, who primaried congressional majority leader Eric Cantor out of office yesterday, here are some worth starting with:

He ran with strong Tea Party support and largely on an anti-immigration message, referring to undocumented migrants as “illegals.”

He’s a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon University in Virginia, where he also teaches ethics; he holds a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary; he describes himself as a "free-market, Milton Friedman economist" and his scholarship includes work with titles like "God and Advanced Mammon — Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?" and "An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand"; he says he stands for the main tenets of the “Republican creed: free markets, equal protection under the law, fiscal responsibility, constitutional restraint, strong military and belief in God.”

He is a Roman Catholic, though his position on immigration puts him politically far more in line with white evangelicals, among whom support for immigration has dropped to 48 percent; 63 percent of Catholics support immigration reform, as do 68 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

He is either still celebrating or may need to brush up on actual policy, if this exchange from "Morning Joe" is any indicator. A snippet of his answer to a question from Chuck Todd about the minimum wage: 

"Minimum wage, no, I'm a free market guy," Brat responded. "Our labor markets right now are already distorted from too many regulations. I think Cato estimates there's $2 trillion of regulatory problems and then throw Obamacare on top of that, the work hours is 30 hours a week. You can only hire 50 people. There's just distortion after distortion after distortion and we wonder why our labor markets are broken."

Todd then pressed Brat on the question.

"Um, I don't have a well-crafted response on that one," Brat finally conceded. "All I know is if you take the long-run graph over 200 years of the wage rate, it cannot differ from your nation's productivity. Right? So you can't make up wage rates."

As for arming Syrian rebels: “I'd love to go through all of this but my mind is — I love all the policy questions but I just wanted to talk about the victory ahead.”

And as of 10:50 a.m. eastern, his website is down.

The post-mortems on Cantor also make for good reading, starting with E. J. Dionne Jr.'s take, now featured on our homepage.

Read more

How should the church be governed?

SAN DIEGO -- At the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting on Saturday, Archbishop John R. Quinn, emeritus of San Franciscio, responded to critiques of his 2013 book on reforning structures of church governance, Ever Ancient, Ever New. Quinn, who served as president of the U.S. bishops conference from 1977 to 1980, previewed that volume's arguments in a talk he delivered at Stanford last year. "Media reports dealing with reform tend to focus on clerical celibacy and on the ordination of women and on the reform of the Curia," he said. "These are important topics, but it would be a mistake to stop there."

The reform he urges involves decentralizing papal authority and increasing the authority of local bishops conferences. In order to achieve those goals, Quinn argued, the church has to establsh regional bishops conferences and episcopal synods that would carry out the administration of the local church (e.g., appointing bishops, handling liturgical issues, etc.). These reforms were called for by the bishops at Vatican II, according to Quinn. After Pope John Paul II asked for recommendations on reforming the papacy in Ut Unum Sint, Quinn published a book about these issues called The Reform of the Papacy (1999). Yet throughout his ponificate, John Paul continued to centralize authority in the office of the pope. Local bishops conferences lost authority. "To date," Quinn told the Stanford audience, "fifty years after the council, no deliberative synod has ever been held." His latest book is an attempt to reignite the conversation he began nearly twenty-five years ago.

The first respondent to Quinn's book was Amanda Osheim of Loras College, and the second was Joseph Komonchak (who requires no introduction here). I've collected my tweets of the session below, so remember: you may find some typos; unless you see quotation marks, I'm paraphrasing; and owing to the density and speed of the remarks, I may not have captured the speakers' intent with total clarity. The tweet parade begins after the jump.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

Engagement or retreat? Joseph Bottum responds

Right now on the homepage, Joseph Bottum takes his turn in our special feature, "Engagement or Retreat? Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage." Bottum responds to Ross Douthat and Jamie L. Manson, who themselves were responding to Bottum's controversial Commonweal piece from last summer, "The Things We Share: A Catholic's Case for Same-Sex Marriage." An excerpt from Bottum's response:

Sometimes same-sex marriage has been described as a natural outcome of the removal of sex from the realm of morality. Sometimes it has been praised as a wonderful transgressive rebellion, good because it helped undo bad Western norms. Sometimes it has been described as a useful expansion of an old idea, helping preserve the marriage culture. Occasionally it has been promoted as a way of returning ethics to sexual relations, drawing gays and lesbians away from support for the demoralization of sex, to which, it is claimed, they were forced by the repressions of a premodern morality that lasted into the modern world.

In other words, the arrival of legal recognition of same-sex marriage was over-determined in America. And that’s why I think it makes a terrible object for the Catholic Church to pick as the synechdoche for all the objectionable things in contemporary society. Our problem as Catholics isn’t that same-sex marriage somehow uniquely represents Western society’s recent turns; our problem is those turns themselves: the disenchantment of the world, the systematic effort to hunt down and destroy the last vestiges of old metaphysical and spiritual meanings in the world.

Read the whole thing here; read Douthat here, and Manson here.

Update: Manson & Douthat respond to Bottum on same-sex marriage

You may remember the controversial essay from Joseph Bottum we published last summer, “The Things We Share,” in which the former editor of First Things wrote it was no longer prudent for American Catholics to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage. We’re continuing the conversation in  “Engagement or Retreat? Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage,” in which Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, and Jamie L. Manson of the National Catholic Reporter comment on Bottum’s argument.

Update: we posted Douthat’s piece yesterday; excerpts follow the jump. Now featured is Manson's response to Bottum. An excerpt:

In [Joseph Bottum’s] view, “American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.”

I would take that further. As someone preparing to enter a same-sex marriage with my partner of five years, I think American Catholics can and should accept recognition of same-sex marriage because they are Catholics. The church should revise its attitude toward same-sex relationships not simply because the culture is moving in that direction—which by itself, as Bottum says, is no reason to alter any moral teaching—but because it has become clear that that what the church teaches about homosexuality is not true….

Anyone with an experience of loving same-sex relationships will find unpersuasive the Catholic teaching that such relationships are sinful by their very nature because only sex acts that have the potential to create new life are licit.

Such a strict interpretation of natural law reduces human beings to their biological functions, and fails to appreciate persons in their totality as the emotional, spiritual, and physical beings that God created us to be. Most of us have realized that the potential to procreate does not by itself lead to the flourishing of married couples. Many childless couples have demonstrated that their relationships can also be fruitful and life-giving. So why must same-sex couples be regarded as incapable of marriage? … Rather than making procreation and genital complementarity the fundamental criteria for marriage, we should instead be asking whether spouses are a visible, tangible sign of God’s loving presence in our midst.

Read more

U.S. conservatives frightened & confused by pope's moral world.

Yesterday Pope Francis took to Twitter to launch a new phase of Catholic Social Teaching. With just seven words he shook the foundations of the Catholic moral universe: "Inequalty is the root of social evil," Francis wrote. Both Catholic and non-Catholic observers alike struggled to find their bearings. Joe Carter of the social-justice think tank the Acton Institute responded quickly: "Um, no it's not. Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil." He wondered whether Francis had "traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty"--the economist whose latest book on the unfairness of capitalism has become a global phenomenon.

Catholic Culture poobah Phil Lawler also expressed skepticism, calling the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement, [and] as an a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He decided that the best way to understand Francis's tweet was to go to the original Latin: that "version of this tweet is even simpler: Iniquitas radix malorum. That phrase has a somewhat different meaning." Lawler's Latin expertise leads him to assert that "iniquitas" might also mean "iniquity" or "injustice," which would "make more sense," even though the Spanish version of the tweet "admittedly looks more like the English."

Non-Catholic Mollie Hemingway was likewise confused. "I don't understand what this is supposed to mean, exactly," she tweeted, later suggesting "envy and coveting" were really to blame for social evil. Former Catholic Rod Dreher found himself flummoxed too: "What does that even mean?" He continued: "Twitter pronouncements like the Pope’s are simplistic and confusing."

It's true. Twitter is not an ideal place to advance complex moral arguments. Wouldn't it be better if the pope developed some of this at greater length, in, say, some sort of letter to the faithful? He might even consider exhorting his people in an apostolic manner, for example, with a title like Evangelii Gaudium or some such, perhaps under a section heading reading "The Economy and the Distribution of Income." Come again? He's done just that? Over the course of several paragraphs? And it's been publicly available for months? Oh. Roll tape. 

Read more

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

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

A Lenten Love Letter

There is something characteristically, beautifully and powerfully Catholic about CRS Rice Bowl

Characteristically, because Rice Bowl is an intensely incarnate program.  The flimsy, yet sturdy, fold-together Rice Bowl on the dining room table is something you can see and touch.  The aromas of Rice Bowl's meatless dinner recipes fill the kitchen on Friday nights, stimulate the taste buds with flavors both new and familiar, and fill the stomach (or not, which provides its own lesson). 

Beautifully, because Rice Bowl's educational materials are thoughtfully and artfully prepared.  They're inviting to the eye and always feature, first and foremost, photographs of CRS beneficiaries from around the world and across the US.  Unlike some charitable programs, Rice Bowl doesn't innundate its donor-participants with images of blank-eyed impoverished victims on the brink of death.  Rather, Rice Bowl's photographs, stories and videos steadily and subtly offer images and reminders of the hope and joy that come from faith and love made incarnate. 

Powerfully, first because Rice Bowl raises $7 million annually to support CRS programs in 40 countries around the world. (1/4 of money raised stays in local dioceses.)  Second, because Rice Bowl deepens the meaning and practice of Lent...especially for children:

Read more

What’s up with 59 percent of white Catholics?

A new Pew survey shows “modest decline” in support for the death penalty, with 55 percent of U.S. adults saying they favor it for people convicted of murder and 37 percent opposing, as opposed to 62 percent favoring and 31 percent opposing in 2011, the last time Pew asked the question.

Any drop comes as good news for those opposed to capital punishment, but as usual the drill-downs turn up the interesting information. Take race: Many more whites (63 percent) continue to support the death penalty than do Hispanics (40 percent) or African Americans (36 percent). Or religion-and-race: 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty; for Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, support is 37 and 33 percent, respectively. And white Catholics? Support for capital punishment is higher than the overall number, at 59 percent.

Read more

Archbishop Gregory apologizes.

Last week I pointed out that Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta had recently moved into a $2.2-million, 6,200-square-foot home--an expense made possible by a $15-million bequest. Gregory had been living at the cathedral rectory, but apparently that parish is growing rapidly. The rector of the cathedral asked Gregory whether the parish could purchase the property from the archdiocese, and Gregory agreed. That's why he built the new residence. But in January, Gregory met with parishioners who weren't happy with that plan. They wanted him to sell the new building, move into the old one, and use the money to help the poor.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month, Gregory and McNamee said the expenditures were necessary for their living arrangements and that it was too late to reverse course. They also noted the plans had been approved by governing bodies within their respective institutions.

“To undo what has been publicly announced for two years wouldn’t be a prudent use of archdiocese resources,” Gregory said.

Gregory also said he thinks the new home would have the pope’s blessing.

“He wants his bishops to engage with his people,” said Gregory, who was installed as archbishop in Atlanta in 2005. His new home, he said, allows for larger groups to visit; the grounds also are good for cookouts and other outdoor activities. In this way, said Gregory, he can follow the pope’s admonition to “smell like the flock” — to be close to parishioners.

“It’s important for me to connect,” he said. “And that’s another dominant theme for Pope Francis.”

The archbishop has had a change of heart. Yesterday he issued a long, remarkably candid apology, leading with a tough letter he received from a parishioner. “We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for," she wrote.

Read more

St. Joseph's eve

Today is St. Joseph Day. Only it’s not, except in certain Italian-American neighborhoods, where it’s been St. Joseph’s Day since more or less the weekend, which is when the confection known as the St. Joseph’s pastry started showing up alongside the grudgingly offered Irish soda bread in local bakeries. We Italians, never reluctant to indulge our impulse toward aggrieved resentment and victimization, have to remind the whole world that not everyone is congenitally (or even civically) compelled to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Must have something to do with the status anxiety that comes with, as I’ve seen at least one Irish writer phrase it recently, “arriving on a later boat.”

Growing up in rural western New Jersey, I was spared the ethnic strife I understood to be forever roiling the urban centers to the east. My father might mutter vaguely now and then about “Connecticut and Westchester Irish” he had to deal with as a day student at Fordham University in the 1950s, but he exhibited indifference to March 17, and I didn’t even know what a St. Joseph’s pastry was, or the symbolism it carried for certain immigrants and their children, until I got to know my wife’s family.

From them I got my first look at a St. Joseph’s pastry, along with firsthand stories from the frontlines of Jersey City—about the Irish toughs who bullied my father-in-law, the Irish girls who brazenly yanked the hair of his aunts and grandmother right beneath the noses of the uncaring teachers, the general haughtiness and superiority with which the Dillons and Halligans and McGoverns carried themselves, “walking down the streets liked they owned them—which they did!” Umbrage and resentment in plentiful supply, but neither did these stop my father-in-law from forging close friendships with kids like Francis Xavier Fitzpatrick and Jimmy McGovern himself (whose father Mugsy was selected for running the numbers “on account of his photographic memory”). Or one of the cousins from marrying the beautiful Kay McGillicuddy. Or the grandparents and the Dillons from becoming lifelong, mutually helpful neighbors.

Settled in Brooklyn, I was reintroduced to St. Joseph’s pastry only after my son was born, by the older Italian woman in whose care we were leaving him a couple of afternoons a week (his name, go figure, is Patrick). She said he really liked it, even better than the pistachios and Tootsie Rolls she fed him despite his only being eighteen months old at the time. This morning on the way to the subway I stopped by the local bakery, where a marked-down, forlorn-looking loaf of day-old soda bread sat on the counter. Over the weekend I read that the neighborhood I live in is now only about 20% Italian, down from 52% thirty years ago—a decline not nearly as great as I suspected from having watched the turnover in just the last decade—with median household income having more than doubled. Most of the other customers were ordering lattes and croissants. I ordered a St. Joseph’s pastry, selecting the custard variety (zeppole) over the cannoli-cream (sfinci), having to be reminded of the difference and forgetting just how large and daunting these things are. I’ll probably just bring it back home and split it four ways for dessert tonight, and quietly celebrate St. Joseph’s eve with the family.

Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

Read more

In Slate, Paul Baumann on the fascination with Francis

If you read only one piece on the one-year anniversary of Francis’s papacy, make it “The Public Pope,” by Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, which is featured today at Slate.

An excerpt:

Whatever people think Pope Francis is offering, he is no magician; he can’t alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers. In this light, the inordinate attention paid to the papacy, while perhaps good for business, is not good for the church. Why not? Because it encourages the illusion that what ails the church can be cured by one man, especially by a new man. In truth no pope possesses that kind of power, thank God. The very first pope, let us recall, was a man of legendary weakness, denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed. And the most recent pope, Benedict XVI—a man of towering intellect and inspiring, if fusty, piety—retired from the ring, overmastered by palace intrigue within the Vatican. John Paul II, to be sure, was a media superstar and arguably played a historic role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even he could not effectively confront the most critical challenge facing his church, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals.

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

Read it all here, then come back here to discuss.

Wear your ashes to work day

The celebrant of the Mass I went to yesterday said that if people asked us afterward if it was Ash Wednesday, we had permission to answer: “No. Why do you ask?”

It was the kind of benign joke meant to fade faster than the smudge on your forehead, but it came back to me last night while watching a local political news show on which one of the regular guests made sure to note the ashes on his forehead and declare it a true sign of what he called “RC” – “real Christianity, baby! Roman Catholicism!” The guest was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and by now just another more-or-less tolerated presence on the New York media and politics scene. So maybe it was only to be expected that he’d follow this by bending his bicep and proclaiming (here I paraphrase, because the clip isn’t available) that Ash Wednesday is the day “we RCs get to flex our Catholic muscle!”

Another joke, more stupid than benign, but maybe less benign than bellicose. I can imagine many viewers not recognizing it as humor, and maybe others willing to see it as an attempt at such, but also identifying in it something defensive if not hostile (never mind at odds with the gospel message of the day). Plus, he did it on TV.

Sliwa wore his ashes to work on Wednesday, like many other Catholics, as this National Catholic Register story details. Among them was another TV personality, Tony Reali of ESPN sports talk show “Around the Horn.” He’s done it for a number of years, though he notes in the story that he’s struggled “with the publicness” of it, his main worry being that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

Are there degrees of “publicness”? Is walking along the sidewalk different from sitting at your desk or running a large meeting—or going in front of the camera and into people’s living rooms? Forget about workplace policies. When and where does the silent or quiet evangelization become too noisy, the public expression of faith too pushy? Is it only at the point when someone like Sliwa comes in off the street and gets on the air?