A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

Palestinian-Israeli Violence

J.J. Goldberg follows Israeli politics closely. In his latest column at the Forward, he examines Prime Minister Netanyahu's claims about Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who has since revised his remarks, originally claimed that the grand mufti gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust. As Goldberg points out, Netanyahu's revised explanation has not exactly clarified matters. Since "today’s Palestinian leadership continues to revere Husseini and his legacy," the violence now spreading from Jerusalem is due to implacable Palestinian hatred of Israelies. IDF officers in charge of responding and controlling the violence have a different take.

Goldberg reports that "two active-duty IDF generals who are among the army’s top experts on Palestinian affairs spoke out publicly to state that Palestinian violence is driven to a considerable degree by anger at Israeli actions. One of the two went a step further, warning that only a serious Israeli diplomatic re-engagement with the Palestinians will help to quell such violence over the long term." One general specifically cited attacks by settlers against Palestinians as part of the cycle of violence now roiling the country

Read Golberg's story in the Forward before commenting.

Correctness Revisited

Weeks ago I posted a pair of entries, one on campus political correctness and the other on the Confederate-flag question of expunging memorials now viewed as morally benighted. Two current news items bring these topics back to mind. 

The first, explored in a Times article titled “Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus,” takes up the complexity of college trick-or-treating in an era of concern about “cultural appropriation.” Colleges have been informing undergraduates that when it comes to Halloween costumes, “Pocahontas, Caitlyn Jenner and Pancho Villa are no-nos” -- as are geisha girls and samurai warriors and just about any other get-up based on an ethnic, cultural or gender identity. Instead, students are being advised to opt for safe, non-human costumes: a cup of Starbucks coffee, to take one example, or a Crayola crayon.

The term “cultural appropriation,” the article explains, reflects the view “that the melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another.” To that end, the University of Michigan posted a webpage advising against “the adoption of other cultural groups’ elements including clothing, symbols, art, music, religion, language, and social behavior,” in order to avoid “belittling the origin culture in a way that trivializes an entire way of life, turning it into an accessory or adopting it for entertainment.” The website suggests that you vet any proposed costume by asking yourself “How accurate and/or respectful is it to the culture/identity” it derives from. That’s a pretty high bar, and arguably a strange standard, to set for a costume extravaganza in which humor, excess, parody and fantasy are the goals. But concern about someone possibly taking offense is paramount on campus these days.

By way of illustrating cultural appropriation, the Times article refers to an imbroglio at the University of Louisville, where the university’s president and his wife hosted a Halloween party for guests dressed in sombreros, colorful ponchos and fake moustaches. A student newspaper called the costumes “racist,” and the University issued an apology. In a similar incident, two students at Clemson University recently complained about “Maximum Mexican  Night,” at which Mexican food was served in the dining halls (and, again, staff wore sombreros and fake moustaches.) The university issued a statement apologizing for the event’s “flattened cultural view of Mexican culture.”

Read more


Regular readers of Commonweal will be familiar with the work of Eve Tushnet. She has written for the magazine about art (for example, here, here, and here), about the shifting roles of family and friendship in twenty-first-century America (here and here), and about the experiences of a celibate gay Catholic (here). On this last subject she wrote a book that Mary Lee Freeman reviewed for us in January. Those who have read Tushnet's blog will also be aware of the impressive range of her interests, from pop culture (especially music) to high culture, from sociology to mysticism. She is a generalist with enough intelligence and intellectual energy to get below the surface of a subject, even if it's the tenth subject she's written about that week.

Now Tushnet has published her first novel, Amends, which is about a group of young alcoholics participating in a reality-TV series about rehab. Apart from their addiction, the six protagonists would seem to have little in common. They come from different backgrounds, have different personalities and tastes, and react to their new sobriety regime in very different ways. At its most sociological, the book is satire, offering the reader miniature tableaux of contemporary campus culture, jock culture, and telemarketing culture, as well as a much more ambitious portrait of our mass-media culture—a culture of self-display and therapeutic flimflam.

But Amends is not only satire. It's also an attempt to imagine how abject humiliation can sometimes (but only sometimes) lead to real humility. Tushnet does not sentimentalize the former or underestimate the real difficulty of the latter. But for many of her characters, pride is as big a problem as addiction, and a much deeper one. Alcohol is one of the things her characters are deceiving themselves about, but pride is the cause of their self-deception, and only undisguisable failure can undeceive them. In order to overcome their chemical dependence, Tushnet's young addicts have to accept their dependence on, and responsibility to, other people. Writing about the novel for First Things, Wesley Hill observes that "humiliation is better than sheer moral success if and inasmuch as it becomes the occasion for love (the positive virtue of self-giving always being better than the merely negative virtue of abstinence from something bad)."

Recovered sobriety, unlike clean living from the get-go, may be for some of us the necessary road to grace insofar as it shifts our perspective from ourselves (“I can stay clean”) to the lives of others (“I need you in order to get sober, and my saying ‘I’m an alcoholic’ means I’m in the same boat with you and I want to love you back”). Discovering a vocation, as Tushnet often says, isn’t primarily about white-knuckled self-denial and moral achievement; it’s about saying “yes” to a community to whom you have responsibilities, whom you’re called to love.

Amends is available here.

Is Memoir a "Catholic" Art Form?

Gregory Cowles gestures at that question in his recent review of Mary Karr’s new book, The Art of Memoir. He notes the following in a parenthetical aside:

Given the inherently confessional nature of memoir, it may be no coincidence that so many of its most successful practitioners have been Catholic to some degree – Karr, Wolff, Harrison, and of course Augustine, but also Mary McCarthy, David Carr, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Frank McCourt – or that even non-Catholic memoirists slip so easily into the churchly narrative of penitence and redemption.

That prompted Paul Elie, who expresses some ambivalence about the matter, to admit Cowles might be on to something:

Cowles was the editor of my TBR cover essay on faith and fiction, and with this piece he furnishes part of the answer to the essay’s question of why Christian belief doesn’t figure into contemporary American fiction as much as we might expect.

It’s that it figures into memoir instead. I suggested as much at the end of the essay.

And why is that? Not, I think, because Catholicism is markedly confessional, but because the question about religion in our time – the question as framed by Catholics, at any rate – is whether it is true or untrue, and because memoir, with its affirmation that “this really happened,” may be better suited to that question than the novel is.  

I’m not so sure. The truth or untruth of religion is a perennial question; and the author of a memoir asserts not just that "this really happened," but "this really happened to me." A memoir deals with the remembered past, and as such is irreducibly subjective. Which is one reason why memoirs are so popular these days among religious and secular audiences alike, and why, yes, Catholics have written many great ones, but so have evangelical Christians, drug addicts, aging writers, and countless others. Memoir is exactly the form you would expect to thrive in our postmodern age; appeals to "objective truth" are viewed with suspicion, but personal experience and "speaking your truth" are nearly sacrosanct. To repurpose Elie's langauge, "Christian belief" really is "confessional," and it is precisely for that reason that religious memoirs gets an unusually respectful hearing these days. Theology might leave us cold, but testimony does not.

Admittedly this explains why religious memoirs are popular today more than it uncovers any deeper connection memoirs might have to Catholicism, or Christianity more broadly. Which is the question Cowles was getting at, I think, and that Elie's concern for the contemporary scene obscures. The matter of religious memoir's resonance or popularity today is not the same as the question of the broader connection between religion and memoir.

Read more

Douthat Riposte

In at least one respect (and perhaps others) Ross Douthat and Paul Baumann agree: They are both among the laity and they can speak on Catholic matters.

Douthat in "Letter to Catholic Academics": ...we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts...."  

Anyway not esoteric after Vatican II. As Paul explains: Ross Douthat: Vatican II Catholic

Exxon Proves the Pope's Point

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ has often been assailed as anti-capitalist, but some of his comments about business seem prophetic in light of recent disclosures about Exxon’s long-ago research on global warming.

Earlier this month, journalists from the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism documented how Exxon scientists confirmed in research conducted from 1986 to 1992 that global warming was melting the Arctic ice cap.

Publicly,  the company stated that its “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.” Privately, it was using the research to guide future exploration for oil in areas where its scientists knew the ice would be melting.

The LA Times story follows on more pointed reports from the Guardian in July and in September. The latter charged:

toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

Exxon has its defenders, who say that there were also scientists within the company who disagreed with the findings on global warming. But the fact that the company was willing to use the information about global warming to guide its business decisions -- while at the same time denying its importance to the public -- suggests the need for the type of investigation tobacco companies faced.

Read more

Over & Out

It was all an accident. My mother was not born Catholic, but Lutheran, Missouri Synod. When it came time to decide which tradition I would be raised in, my parents decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for me to get the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest. That’s what my paternal grandmother—devout Irish Catholic that she was—would want, they reasoned. No one dared to rouse her secret temper. So Catholic I would be. As my mom and grandma were washing dishes after my baptism party, the Catholic turned to the Lutheran and asked, “Honey, why did you have Grant baptized Catholic? You’re the one who goes to church.”

Apparently my mom took that comment to heart, because when it came time for me to go off to school, my parents sent me to a Lutheran preschool, and then for kindergarten to another Lutheran school. It was called Our Savior, and my child mind reckoned that was the place you sent your kids after you had saved up enough money.  I was still working on my soteriology.

Of all my school supplies, I was proudest of my Popeye folder. It was no mere paper-holder. A comic strip was printed on its front and back covers. Every day, I smuggled a comic book disguised as folder—into school, school. About a week after I started kindergarten, my teacher noticed that I could read. I was rewarded by being dragged before the first-graders, plopped down in a too-tall chair, and, made to read to them, accompanied only by the silent metronomes of my swinging legs. Doubtless the highlight of their academic year. Eventually my teacher suggested to my parents that I transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Paul of the Cross, where she thought I’d receive a better education.

They took that advice to heart too. So off I went to St. Paul’s—just a few years after Peter Steinfels darkened its doors, I might add. It was a convivial place. First graders fortunate to have Miss Sullivan (Ms. hadn’t quite come into wide use in Chicagoland), and speedy enough to finish their Friday book reports early, were granted exclusive access to the carpeted play area in the front of the classroom. There were puzzles. Books. And the only thing anyone really cared about: a huge bucket of popsicle sticks. Dave and Eric and I tended to be the the speediest students in the room. One Friday morning, we burned through our book reports, grabbed the bin of popsicle sticks, and went to work on a modest work of art. On the dark brown carpeting, we arranged dozens of beige popsicle sticks in the shape of a mermaid. An anatomically correct mermaid. Miss Sullivan was amused, but not pleased. No more popsicle sticks for us, for at least a week.

Read more

Bishop Barron's Evolving Tolerance

Intervening on the Douthat controversy, Bishop Robert Barron has urged his fellow Catholics to recognize that the Church has always been a place of great controversy--and pleads with us all for more engagement with and tolerance of each other's ideas. In an essay entitled, "Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy," he writes: "The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable."  Nice.  Broad-minded. 

Mmm. Just for kicks, I googled "Barron" and "Dowd." And the google was not disappointed. It highlighted an essay entitled "Why It's Okay to Be Against Heresy and For Imposing One's Views on Others"--right next to a picture of Maureen Dowd. While many columnists don't write their own column titles, I think it is safe to attribute this title to Bishop Barron, since it's on his own website.

His view toward open-minded discussion is not quite the same in the older essay, at least on the surface. Barron writes: "The Catholic Church is not a Voltairean debating society; it is a community that stands for some very definite things, which implies, necessarily, that it sets its back against very definite things."

What's changed? I like to think it's the grace of office. 

Ross Douthat, Vatican II Catholic

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is both a political conservative and a self-described “orthodox” Catholic. Very orthodox. Really, really, orthodox. At least in the abstract. Less so, he winningly admits, in temperament. Nevertheless, he has taken great exception to the direction in which Pope Francis, that wily Jesuit, is taking the church. Douthat is especially distressed over the Synod on the Family and the pope’s advocacy for some reform that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment to receive Communion. He thinks making accommodations to the “sexual revolution” will more or less destroy the church. He goes further, suggesting that those in favor of such reforms are flirting with…well, heresy. He’s coy about employing the term, but his meaning is clear.

His October 18 column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” went so far as to cast doubt on Pope Francis’s and Cardinal Walter Kasper’s fidelity to church teaching. Douthat is certain that what Jesus said about divorce requires little interpretation, and that the church’s teaching in this area is unchanging, unambiguous, and absolute. In making that case, Douthat seems willfully blind to the accommodations the church has made for marital failure with both the Petrine and Pauline privileges and in the annulment process. If Jesus’s teaching on marriage is so obvious, one could add, why did it take the church a thousand years to conclude that marriage was a sacrament? Finally, if the church over time came to embrace that development of doctrine, why is any further development out of bounds?

Douthat’s unfortunate column has prompted some prominent Catholic theologians and scholars to issue a statement questioning his “professional qualifications” for writing about such technical doctrinal and theological questions. Several of the authors and signatories to the statement are valued contributors to Commonweal. We sympathize with their exasperation with how Douthat presents the conservative take on these questions as the only “orthodox” position. The Catholic tradition is larger and more multifarious than Douthat imagines, or wishes to imagine. His suggestion that those who favor reform are simply betraying the tradition and Protestantizing the church is especially troubling.

But we must disagree with Douthat’s critics on whether he has standing to comment on these controversies or advocate forcefully for his view. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been the right of lay Catholics to make their voices heard even on doctrinal and theological controversies. Indeed, it must be said that Douthat’s engagement with Catholicism is far more nuanced and better informed than that of Frank Bruni or Maureen Dowd, two more liberal Catholics who often comment on Catholicism for the Times.   

In a recent lecture on the crisis of conservative Catholicism brought on by this papacy, Douthat pronounced the Second Vatican Council a failure. Yet it was that “failed” gathering of bishops that urged Catholic laypersons such as Douthat to take active responsibility for the church. Douthat is more of a Vatican II Catholic than he suspects. In that same talk, Douthat admitted that conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine. At the very least, he said, there needs to be a conservative answer to John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. Not really. Judge Noonan’s book is a conservative case for doctrinal development.

New Stories on the Homepage

Right now we’re featuring two new pieces on the homepage.

Robert Mickens, in his first post-synod Letter from Rome, looks at the importance Pope Francis places on his role not just as Bishop of Rome but as Primate of Italy. There’s a not-to-be-overlooked significance to this, Mickens writes, especially given new and “surprising” episcopal appointments to the major archdioceses of Bologna and Palermo.

You can talk about living in a universal and globalized church all you like, but the reality is that its Italian component is still the engine that drives the train. [Pope Francis] knows this. And that’s why he’s making exerted efforts to change the mentality and complexion of its hierarchy…. [P]erhaps the real issue now is to see that how Pope Francis is shaping the Church in Italy – especially through episcopal appointments – may be a good indication of how he hopes to shape it in other parts of the world, too. At least, that’s what many are hoping.

Read the latest Letter from Rome here.

Also, the editors comment on the “real achievement” of the just-concluded Synod on the Family, “the reinvigoration of the synodal process itself, one in which bishops feel free to speak their minds, to disagree with one another, and even to explore the possibility that reform is essential to the church’s evangelical mission.” The synod, Francis said,

was about opening “closed hearts” and dispensing with the “superiority and superficiality” with which some approach “difficult cases and wounded families.” He dismissed “conspiracy theories” about the synod, and implored bishops to move beyond formulas “encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” In defending the family against “ideological and individualist assaults,” he emphasized that the church’s “first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.” Catholics must guard against the self-righteousness of the prodigal son’s jealous elder brother.

In ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the synod process, Francis laid out a vision for the fulfillment of the promises of the Second Vatican Council that was anything but ad hoc or confusing. The Synod of Bishops, he noted, “was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method.” This effort at collegial governance “is one of the most precious legacies” of the council. “Synod” literally means walking together, the pope pointed out, and that process of discernment includes all the baptized. The laity are not just recipients of church teaching, but have an active role in safeguarding the faith. It is the faith of the whole people of God, the sensus fidelium, that protects the church from error, Francis reminded the bishops. “How would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish?” the pope said. A “synodal church is a listening church.... It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.”

Read all of “Walking Together” here.

Frank Brennan, SJ, on "Why the Pope is not an Anti-Capitalist Greenie"

The distinguished Australian Jesuit Frank Brennan, SJ (whom Boston College had the pleasure of hosting during the academic year 2014-2015 as its Gasson Professor) has written a very insightful piece on the pope, the synod, and the letter from the twelve bishops. What I found particularly useful was his situating that letter in the context of past synods. 

  It is so good he is to be forgiven for being in a place where summer is just beginning, as his friends in Boston head into winter. (My puppy Ziva encountered frost this morning. She was not pleased). 

Bishops of the World Unite on Climate Change

After Pope Francis asked the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to work on an encyclical on the environment, Cardinal Turkson’s diligent-but-understaffed office scrambled to get him a draft by the end of last summer. They fully expected a release toward the end of last year. But Pope Francis sat on it. Part of the reason, it seems, is that he wanted to consult far and wide. But another part of the reason is that he always planned to issue it in 2015—to be able to influence COP21.

What is COP21? In classic bureaucrat-speak, it means the 21st annual meeting of the “Conference of the Parties” to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit when world leaders first united to address the terrifying consequence of man-made global warming. Specifically, the UNFCCC seeks to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This has been subsequently interpreted as keeping the rise in global mean temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold beyond which disaster seems inevitable.

Since the Rio summit all those years ago, the result has been….nothing. Nada. Zilch. We’ve kicked the can down the road so many times that there’s barely any road left. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls attention to this shameful inaction, this dereliction of our gravest duty. He says that by putting “national interests above the global common good”, the world is guilty of “failure of conscience and responsibility”.

He then adds: “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays”.

He is, of course, talking about COP21, which will take place in Paris in November/ December. Given the scale and speed of climate change, this is really the last chance for a serious agreement before the clocks runs out.

This is why heads of all continental associations of bishops conference—alongside the United States and Canada—have come together to sign an appeal to political leaders who will soon be gathering for COP21.

Read more

The End Is the Beginning


ROME—Put away the tea leaves. After three weeks of argument, intrigue, and, yes, prayer, the fourteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops—comprising 270 clerics from around the world—has voted. Two-thirds of the synod fathers supported opening a path for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to fuller participation in the life of the church—including liturgically. In some countries, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot serve as lectors, catechists, or godparents.

In conversation with a priest, according to the synod’s final summary text, a person can become “conscious of [his or her] situation before God”—through the “internal forum.” This process, according to the text, may help a person discern what “prevents the possibility of fuller participation in the life of the church,” and to figure out what can be done to “make it [the participation] grow.” (In 1991, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled out the internal forum as a pathway for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion.)

The text does not specify whether this could result in a return to the Communion line. But, importantly, neither does it foreclose the possibility—something many synod fathers wanted to rule out. For weeks, those synod fathers had been arguing for a final relatio that closed the door on Communion for the divorced and remarried. They didn't win the day. The synod—which is a consultative body, not a deliberative one—could have sent Pope Francis a document that simply reaffirmed the current practice of barring the civilly remarried from the Eucharist. It didn’t. That’s important.

Read more

Paul Ryan, the Right's Kind of Family Man

Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”

Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.

Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.

Read more

Breakfast Dialectics

You know those exchanges with your child where you’re trying to make a point and your parental wisdom, impeccable though it might be, is not being embraced? Before you know it, you’ve landed in a gnarly little power struggle. In our family, the snafus tend to happen in the morning, when everyone is trying to eat, feed the dogs, get organized, and get going. Amid the melee patience wears thin, and a parent (well, this one anyway) can lose perspective.

A few weeks ago, my older sister was visiting when I had one of these minor blowouts with my nine-year old daughter. Larkin had dawdled and I was trying to get her out the door to school, when I saw that she had put on a pair of beat-up galoshes-like boots, in a dingy shade of purple, instead of her usual shoes. I told her to change them.

Why? she asked.

“They’re not school shoes,” I said. “They’re not even shoes. They look funky, and they’re too big for you, and they’re gonna be uncomfortable and probably too hot.”

“But I want to wear them. I got them at the tag sale last week and I love them!”

“Honey,” I said. “They’re not appropriate. You have a whole bunch of great shoes right here to choose from. Please take those off and wear something else.”

“But Dad. They are comfortable. And the only rule for shoes at school is closed toe. So they are appropriate. And I’m wearing them!”

Read more

Schism Predictions, with Something to Offend Everyone

No, I'm not peddling Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories about plots in Rome, or speculating about the fallout from the nearly-concluded Synod on the Family. Instead I refer to one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. I won't try to summarize the novel, which follows the inventor of the ontological lapsometer, Dr. Tom More (!), as social chaos unfolds in the "dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A." Its opening pages are among the most immediately gripping I've read, and include this ornery depiction of a Church broken apart, noted below for your perusal:

Our Catholic church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.

The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin mass and plays The Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation.

The Dutch schismatics in this area comprise several priests and nuns who left Rome to get married. They threw in with the Dutch schismatic Catholics. Now several divorced priests and nuns are importuning the Dutch cardinal to allow them to remarry.

The Roman Catholics hereabouts are scattered and demoralized. The one priest, an obscure curate, who remained faithful to Rome, could not support himself and had to hire out as a fire-watcher. It is his job to climb the fire tower by night and watch for brushfires below and for signs and portents in the skies.

I, for example, am a Roman Catholic, albeit a bad one. I believe in the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, in God the Father, in the election of the Jews, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who founded the Church on Peter his first vicar, which will last until the end of the world. Some years ago, however, I stopped eating Christ in Communion, stopped going to mass, and have since fallen into a disorderly life. I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.

Attentive readers of the novel might recall a rather critical reference to Commonweal also found in its pages, which good manners prevent me from reproducing here.

"A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae" by Holly Wiegman

There are many acomplished and faith-filled Catholic women writing about how adherence to Church teaching against contraception enhances their faith and family lives. But we didn't hear as much from practicing Catholics who use contraception about how their choices affects their faith and family lives. In my view, the lack of  such voices leads to an unbalanced conversation, since the vast majority of married Catholics do in fact choose to use artificial birth control. 

Holly Wiegman's essay, which you will find below, helps remedy the lack of conversational balance. She is a freelance writer who lives with her husband in New York. Active in her local parish, she cherishes the rich traditions and diverse community of the Catholic Church.


A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae

Holly Wiegman

The issue of birth control no longer affects my husband and me: at 52 years old I have officially entered my menopausal years.  Yet I still remember with frustration the discussion I had with a priest a number of years ago.  He stated that under certain circumstances abortion could be condoned, but that birth control never could be.  He gave the example of a mother who has four children and becomes pregnant for the fifth time.  If the pregnancy puts her life at risk, her death would have a great toll on the children already born as well as her husband.  In such a case, the mother could choose to abort and be at peace with her decision.  Having carried two children to term at that point, I realized how traumatic such a decision would be: how could any woman be at peace when choosing between her life and the life of her unborn child?  So I asked the obvious question of why the woman could not use contraception to prevent pregnancy and thus never have to make such a devastating choice.  The priest insisted that contraception was not okay under any circumstances.  You mean, I pressed, that a woman in those circumstances should keep having abortions each time she conceives, rather than just prevent pregnancies? Yes, indeed.  That is the formal response I received from this priest, who held an official post regarding ethics in my diocese at the time.

Read more

Synod critics lack historical context

I had decided not to write about the synod on the family. There are a lot of people far more qualified than me discussing it, and—in sharp contrast with the merchants of doom announcing schism or the end of civilization—I actually don’t think it is that important in the larger scheme of things. I’d much rather let the Holy Spirit do his work, and talk about Laudato Si’, the throwaway culture, and the economy of exclusion.

Yet I find some of the recent debate perplexing. I’m not talking about the disgraceful attacks on Pope Francis by those very prelates who used to put such a high premium on loyalty to the pope, or the petty conspiracy theories. No, I’m talking about the really limited historical context on display, especially by the critics who reject any openings toward pastoral flexibility.

This lack of context stretches across both time and space. Much of the historical analysis begins and ends with Vatican II, with the world divided into “conservatives” who prioritize unchanged truth and “liberals” who prioritize mercy and meeting people where they are. This also fits neatly (too neatly) with the very western political dynamic, especially in the US. But it’s too narrow a perspective. While a lot of people are looking back 50 years, very few are looking back 300 years, to the debates about Jansenism. Seen from this broader historical perspective, the position of the “conservatives” might appear less a defense of orthodoxy than a flirtation with Jansenism—especially by stressing that salvation comes from moral rigorism and rigid adherence to rules and norms.

Is it too surprising that the Jansenist impulse is alive and kicking? Again, from a historical perspective, it shouldn’t be. Arianism survived for centuries after Nicaea. Monophysitism survived for centuries after Chalcedon. It’s not too surprising, then, that we see traces of Jansenism a mere three centuries after Clement XI’s Unigenitus! Nor is it surprising that this is especially pronounced in places like the US or Australia, areas that were once heavily influenced by the Irish Church (I would argue that what lost all credibility in Ireland was less the Catholic Church than the Jansenist caricature of it). And in the US, a lot of the most vehement opposition is coming from converts—converts from Calvinist forms of Christianity.

Read more

A Nobel Prize for Catholic Social Thought?

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

Split Decisions

ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.

At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.

This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.

Read more