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Unfortunate USCCB Video on Religious Liberty

Over at National Catholic Reporter, my friend Michael Sean Winters recently discussed a video put out by the USCCB to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark conciliar document, Dignitatis Humanae. The video is truly awful. It made me cringe. Michael Sean’s critique is excellent, and I encourage everyone to read it. He knows far more about Church history and the nuances behind the crafting of Church documents than I do (or ever will!).

Let me begin by acknowledging my agreement with the basic premise—religious liberty, founded in the dignity of the individual, is a basic human right. Its violation in so many regions of the world is a great scandal.

That said, this video is so deeply flawed that is likely to undermine a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, these religious liberty concerns. Let me make six points on this.

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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 Last Task of Incarnation

Of all the events related in the New Testament, the Ascension is one of the hardest to imagine—and, at least as commonly imagined, it may be the hardest to believe. It is, in a sense, Jesus' last miracle. It is also the miracle that seems most like myth: a man rising like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds. Paintings about the Ascension can be very beautiful and very moving, but they almost never seem like representations of an event in history. They seem, instead, like the deus ex machina resolution of a story that had to end in a shroud of mystery—either a literal cloud (as in Acts) or a narrative fog (as in the Gospel of Luke).

All of which is to say, it is the kind of incident about which it would be very easy to write a bad poem and very hard to write a good one. Denise Levertov managed to write a good one. Last year I posted her poem for Holy Saturday, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell." That poem, too, dares to take up an event most of us find very hard to imagine, and it introduces themes that Levertov also explores in "Ascension": the frictions between spirit and matter, the connection between Gospel triumph and surrender.

After the jump, the poem.

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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.

Reading David Brooks in Altoona

I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class part of the country—central Pennsylvania, just outside Altoona. It's the kind of place you might have in mind if you talk about vanishing manufacturing jobs and economic decline. The railroad yards, which once employed so many, aren't what they used to be. The factories that offered blue-collar, breadwinner jobs have closed down or cut back. It could be bleaker—the proximity of Penn State University certainly helps—but people are struggling.

It’s also the kind of place Donald Trump finds enthusiastic support. Blair County, where I was raised and where my parents still live, overwhelmingly went for Trump in the recent Pennsylvania primary, giving him 61 percent of the vote. A few neighboring counties delivered even larger margins of victory.

And as it happens, I was traveling back to this part of Pennsylvania on Friday to visit my parents when I read David Brooks’s latest column, in which he confesses he was woefully unprepared to understand the rise of Trump. Or rather, he simply doesn’t know the kind of people Trump appeals to:

I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

At first I thought Brooks deserved some credit for this, and maybe he does: there seems to be a measure of regret expressed in this passage—and shouldn’t he be admired for his intellectual curiosity, for wanting to learn about the “other”? Perhaps. But as I sat in my uncomfortable bus seat and we rumbled along on Interstate 80, the column grated on me more and more. By the time I reached home, it seemed to me not just a typical, mildly annoying Brooks column, but an emblem of why those searching for what to do about Trump—especially on the right—have proven so disastrously ineffective.

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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.

Elsewhere

On the New Yorker's website, Paul Elie on Daniel Berrigan:

Berrigan’s own consistency involved rejecting not just violence but also the media influence and the resources that his notoriety might have made available to him. He created no foundation, nonprofit, or N.G.O.; headed no pacifist think tank or Jesuit school of advanced study; gave no TED talk; engaged in no stagey dialogues offering equal time to the military point of view; and never reframed the ideals of nonviolence in any pocket-size manual for personal growth. When he wrote about Catonville in his 1987 autobiography, “To Dwell in Peace,” Berrigan characterized celebrity as something like a purifying fire: “There was shortly to be a spotlight on us: it was thin as a pencil slate, and would pierce us through and through; a testing light that touched on the very soul, and illumined and burned. The light of the adversary, the light of the church, light of the eye of God? Light, perhaps, of self-knowledge: of all these together.”

In New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan on hyper-democracy, tyranny, and Donald Trump:

Could it be that the Donald has emerged from the populist circuses of pro wrestling and New York City tabloids, via reality television and Twitter, to prove not just Plato but also James Madison right, that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”? Is he testing democracy’s singular weakness — its susceptibility to the demagogue — by blasting through the firewalls we once had in place to prevent such a person from seizing power? Or am I overreacting?

In the Atlantic, Robert H. Frank on the important role of luck in success—and why we tend to overlook it:

Successful careers, of course, result from many factors, including hard work, talent, and chance. Some of those factors recur often, making them easy to recall. But others happen sporadically and therefore get short shrift when we construct our life stories.

Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.

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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Celastrus orbiculatus

Celastrus orbiculatus or Oriental Bittersweet – what is in a name? The sign signifies for me an elephant gray whorled trunk, perhaps three inches in diameter that has a serpentine strangle-hold on a tree. The vine spirals upwards, branching into many clinging and tangled strands. In the summer, in full leaf, the bittersweet will hide the tree, cover its leaves, and perhaps so weight its host that the tree will topple. The vine struggles up for light, and as it spreads its charming orange-eyed berries blink out of a yellowish caul. These are the apparently innocuous fruits and vines that we happily wreath at holiday time into hoops of Christmas colors – yes, we propagate this invasive pest in just that way – tolerating for its beauty the means of its reproduction.

I spent a few hours yesterday in a part of our property that borders a major road. Bittersweet came to this country from the Far East over a hundred years ago because of its vigorous growth and attractive berries. “it was planted as an ornamental, for erosion control along highways and for wildlife food and habitat” – so declares the Forest Invasive Plants Resource Center. Its delicate white flowers and orange berry fruits contrast against its glossy foliage. Type “oriental bittersweet” into Google and all the entries will point to control and elimination. It is an invasive species most happily adapted to the climate of the North East. It dominates, overgrows, and condemns its hosts.

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Daniel Berrigan, RIP

Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ, died yesterday in New York City at the age of 94. I imagine many dotCommonweal readers will have their own recollections of Fr. Berrigan and his impact on their lives, so consider this an open thread for those reminiscences.

Here's his poem, "Some", written for the Plowshare 8, read by Berrigan at the memorial service for David Joyce in the spring of 1983, and a lovely evocation of Dan's own spirit.

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

Droning On

Some follow-up thoughts to my review of the drone-warfare movie, Eye in the Sky (You can read the review here.) The film explores the decision of whether to use a drone missile attack to wipe out a team of Somali terrorists inside a compound in Nairobi, Kenya, who are suiting up for an imminent suicide bombing. After surveillance cameras reveal a nine-year-old girl selling bread at a stand just outside the compound, we follow the military and civilian command’s agony of decision: is it justifiable to kill a nine-year-old in cold blood in order to eliminate terrorists plotting to kill many more innocents?

One question I had as I watched the movie, and then as I wrote the review, is whether feature films are the best way, or even a good way, to illuminate ethical dilemmas. As soon as I say that, of course, I think of a bunch of mainstream films over recent decades that do just that -- Silkwood, The China Syndrome, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Concussion, and, of course, Zero Dark Thirty. In taking up political, environmental, military and other scandals and dilemmas, such films constitute the muckraking ethical arm of Hollywood. I guess your sense of whether they dignify and focus significant ethical conundrums, or dilute and trivialize them, will depend on what kind of moviegoer you are. Do you want pathos, or perspective? And are these aims mutually exclusive?

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All Over but the Back-Biting

The campaign trajectory of the next seven months is looking all too clear. Donald Trump will add to his denigration of immigrants, women, politicians, Europeans, muslims, etc., vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton. He will bully, badger, lie, and make fun of her. She has promised not to reply in kind. As if she could!

HOWEVER, being the recipient of several Hillarygrams over the last several days inviting me to "Play the Woman's Card, (and send a campaign contribution)" I suggest she drop that line of retort as well. [Trump having accused her of playing the woman's card and bellowing that she could never get elected otherwise, her 18-year old campaign copy writers have her replying--in kind.]

Puts me in mind of Jean Hughes Raber's come-back to "women should vote for women" several yards down on dotCommonweal:  "I've got nothing against women working together toward common goals (like world domination, making men's lives miserable, and outlawing restrictive foundation garments, the stated goals of the International Feminist Conspiracy, Great Lakes Chapter, of which I am recording secretary (JOKE)."

Hillary Clinton has to run a campaign as the last adult standing and not as the "Little Woman Who Could."

The Revolutionary

Nicholas Clifford’s profile of Simon Leys in the latest issue of Commonweal mentions the late Sinologist’s interest in a revolutionary Chinese writer named Lu Xun (1881-1936). During the Cultural Revolution, Leys sought to defend Lu Xun’s legacy from the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party—and intellectuals in the West—to appropriate him as a Maoist icon. Although Lu Xun maintained left wing and patriotic commitments throughout his career, he never joined the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself allegedly admitted that Lu Xun would “either have gone silent, or gone to prison” if he lived through the anti-dissident campaigns of the 1950s.  

It’s a good thing that the Cultural Revolution-era debate on Lu Xun has settled on Simon Leys’s terms. The problem, however, is that his legacy is now under attack by a different kind of sanitizing exaltation. Gloria Davies, author of a recent biography on Lu Xun, writes that post-Maoist scholarship has often reduced his revolutionary polemics to “an example of mere intellectual factionalism.” So I’ll take Clifford’s essay on Simon Leys as an opportunity to ask: Who was Lu Xun and why should we know him better?

The social decay that marked late-imperial China played out on a microcosmic level in Lu Xun’s family. He was born into a gentry-class family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, but his grandfather’s imprisonment for bribery and his father’s failing health laid a heavy burned on the family finances. It seems hardly shocking, then, that Lu Xun (whose given name was Zhou Shuren) abandoned the imperial examination system—the traditional path to success in China for an ambitious young man—that his forbears had followed.

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Is Business an Ethics-Free Zone?

For many if not most, the idea of a “moral economy” is a contradiction. I was reminded of this when reading some of the comments on my last blog post. The logic is straightforward: the “business of business is business”, which is to maximize profits, and as long as corporations don’t break any laws, they are not doing anything wrong. To claim otherwise would be seek perfection in a fallen world.

In my own field of economics, this perspective is pervasive. One of the first things you learn in elementary microeconomics is that consumers maximize utility and firms maximize profits. That’s just how things are. This view is summed by nicely by Branko Milanovic:

“I am thus intellectually sympathetic to the view that personal morality exists only outside economics or capitalism. I might like the guys who are nice and ethical, but when it comes to economics I really do not expect them to be so. I even very much doubt when they claim they are. I tend to see them as hypocritical. This is not in their job description.”

Milanovic makes a comparison with bobsledding—you can go as fast as you like, but you should not hit the fence. In other words, do whatever you can to maximize profits, but don’t break the law. So Milanovic refuses to condemn the behavior of the financial sector in the run-up to the crisis, because they were doing what they are supposed to do and (for the most part) not breaking the law.

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Reading with Ramona

When I wrote a post here on April 12 to mark the occasion of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, I had already filed the column that has just been published in our Spring Books issue ("Ramona the Real"). I mention that because anyone who read the comments on that blog post, which were largely about how contemporary children respond to Cleary's books about Ramona Quimby, might assume my column was inspired by them. It was a happy coincidence -- and evidence that the intensity of my kid's identification with Ramona is far from unique. Though I haven't read or watched Game of Thrones, I've watched friends react to it online, and to say, as Abe R. did, that "the scene where Ramona tears up the owls is basically my 5 year-old's Red Wedding" is both funny and exactly right -- the shock of it all! The carnage! The desolation and despair! My not-quite-five-year-old was climbing the couch cushions with his hands clapped over his ears as I read that chapter of Ramona the Brave.

"Feisty, imaginative Ramona is Cleary’s crowning achievement and the reason she will be revered for generations to come," Ruth Graham writes in an essay at Slate's Book Review. She goes on to sing the praises of some books I haven't read, Cleary's "unjustly forgotten teen novels," and her take makes me want to read those next (probably without my son at my side).

At Christianity Today, D.L. Mayfield writes about reading the Ramona books in Cleary's own town of Portland, Oregon, with his five-year-old daughter named Ramona. Now that's a fan.

I didn't intend for my column in Commonweal to dwell so often on reading with my kids (see here, and also here). But it's something I spend a lot of time doing, and it's been fascinating at every stage to experience books I think I know well through their eyes, and to see the world as they do thanks to those books. We have left Ramona behind for now -- after we followed her through first grade, I decided my rising kindergartener needed a few years to catch up with what comes next. But we are still reading together, a chapter at a time, in the afternoons while his two little brothers take their naps. Now we're working through Eleanor Estes's books about the Moffats, which are written with a similarly keen understanding of how children look at the world and what they think is important. The experience is less stressful for my son -- Rufus, the youngest Moffat and the one with whom he most closely identifies, is as independent and impulsive as Ramona, and even more alarmingly unsupervised, but his escapades generally turn out just fine. For example, both Ramona (in Beezus and Ramona) and Rufus (in Rufus M.) try and fail to get library cards of their own -- believing, falsely, that they know how to write their names. But where Ramona refuses to be corrected and ends up (spoiler alert!) scribbling her "signature" all over her sister's library book so that she can keep it for herself, Rufus buckles down and spends all afternoon learning to write, and back at home his mother praises his accomplishment without asking how it came about. Cleary focuses on the embarrassment the situation causes for Beezus, Ramona's big sister; Estes has Rufus going alone to the library because the rest of his siblings are too wrapped up in their books to pay any attention to him. The Moffats books also have a more "historical" feel than even the oldest of Cleary's, having been published in the 1940s and set a generation earlier. But if the outer trappings of World-War-I-era life are unfamiliar, the children's inner lives, their emotions and logic, are completely relatable. Reading those books aloud makes me appreciate how Estes adopts a child's perspective even in her storytelling style and pace, repeating herself and dwelling on details that would seem insignificant to adults. She knew that kids would know just why they mattered. They are funny, too, and often Marty has surprised me by laughing at a situation I would have thought he'd be too young to see the humor in.

But enough about us. I want to hear more from you all about reading with your kids, or any kids. What have you enjoyed? What did you learn? What should I look for next?

2025... and Beyond

Question: So where are you in American society if you have no cash in your pocket and you don’t drive a car? Answer: in the year 2025, or thereabouts. The cashless and driverless society, in other words, of our near future.  

To me the most fascinating aspect of the U.S. currency redo and the Harriet Tubman $20 bill (aside from Alexander Hamilton being spared elimination via the popularity of a Broadway musical!) is that, as the Times notes, it’s not certain how long a life the Tubman bill will enjoy, since its arrival around 2020 is likely to be followed soon after by the abandonment of cash. To be sure, such prognostications aren’t exact science; the cashless society has been promised for at least half a century, and the driverless car has long been an abiding staple of pop futurism. But now we truly are at the brink of both changes; we’ve reached that moment where the remaining obstacles are not technological, but logistical and – most important – psychological. That is to say, in us.

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Should a Catholic University take Koch Funding?

Can a Catholic university legitimately take money from the likes of the Koch Brothers? This is not a hypothetical question. Many Catholic universities are implicated. But none more so than Catholic University of America, which—in the face of much criticism—has just doubled down with another $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation.

The original partnership with the Kochs, and the subsequent criticism, predates Pope Francis and Laudato si’. If the university’s arguments were weak back then, they are paper-thin now.

Just consider how the philosophy and business practices of the Koch Brothers goes directly against the authoritative teaching of Pope Francis. I will make three points in this regard.

First, the Kochs are avid libertarians, defenders of the unconstrained free market as the best route to prosperity. This ideology is simply not compatible with Catholic social teaching. In full continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis condemns the notion of a “deified market” or a “magical conception of the market.” His point is that an economic system underpinned by self-interest and oriented toward profit maximization is simply incapable of delivering integral and sustainable development. It leads instead to an economy of exclusion, and is deaf to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Pope Francis stresses that working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is a moral obligation—and for Christians, a commandment. “It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right,” he says. In other words, the universal destination of goods is a reality prior to private property. I have a feeling the Kochs would strenuously disagree with this. And this is no mere prudential disagreement. It is foundational and anthropological.

Second, the Kochs are among the leading funders and promoters of climate-change denialism. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis castigates those who are focused on “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.” “There are too many special interests,” he says, “and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” It almost seems like the pope is addressing the Kochs directly! Today, the stakes are especially high after the signing of the Paris Agreement by 196 nations last December. This agreement, which aims to phase out carbon emissions, was a major priority of Pope Francis. It explains the timing of the encyclical’s release, and Laudato si’ served as a moral charter for the agreement. But, almost alone in the world, the Paris agreement is being opposed by key U.S. political interests—because they are beholden to those very same vested interests condemned by Pope Francis.

Third, the business activities of the Kochs cannot be deemed ethical. In terms of assessing ethics in business, the best starting point is "The Vocation of the Business Leader," put out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document is currently being updated to encompass the wisdom of Laudato si’. And Pope Francis makes a compelling point about business ethics that bears repeating in this context. He notes that businesses profit from not paying the true costs of their activities. “Only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” he says, “can those actions be considered ethical.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the business model of the Koch Brothers is simply unethical, period.

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New Issue, Now Live

We've just posted our May 6 issue to the website, featuring Nicholas Clifford's in-depth look into the multiple careers of the Roman Catholic Belgian-Australian writer, essayist, literary critic, translator, art historian, sinologist, and university professor Simon Leys, as well as William Pritchard's essay on the new two-hundred-page edition of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems .

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly writes that the character Ramona Quimby reveals what children's author Beverly Cleary knows about growing up. Reflecting on two recent Notre Dame graduations, Cathleen Kaveny poses a new way forward for Democratic and Republican Catholics beyond partisan culture wars. Rand Richards Cooper reviews the military drama starring Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky.

For books, John T. McGreevy reviews two new books by Sudhir Hazareesingh and David Bell that incorporate American views into the twentieth-century struggles between republicans and Catholics in France over "basic freedoms"; Paul Lakeland reviews Sarah Bakewell’s latest work which scrutinizes (mostly French) existentialist philosophers both as thinkers and as "human beings marked by their moment in history"; Dominic Preziosi reviews Don DeLillo's upcoming novel—a futuristic yet familiar story of filial conflinct and mortality—Zero K; Kathleen Sprows Cummings reviews a providentially-written, full-length biography of Joan Chittester by Tom Roberts; And Gilbert Meilaender reviews George M. Marsden's "biography of a book"—C.S. Lewis's radio-broadcast-turned-religious-classic Mere Christianity.

See the full table of contents here.

Quirke and the Mother of Mercy Laundry

Benjamin Black, the noir disguise of Booker Prize winner John Banville, has returned us to 1950s Dublin and to its genteel but menacing mean streets. Even The Dead is the eighth in the series of detective fictions which follows the life of the functioning alcoholic and pathologist Dr. Quirke. A peculiar family history and the established powers of the church and government burden Quirke. Of course, family and church and politics are in league; the revelations of that alliance challenge the doctor and in some cases imperil him through his many professional years.

Black/Banville has layered remarkable complexity in developing Quirke’s character over these eight books. It would be a long paragraph to summarize them here, but the complications are as much a part of recreation of an Ireland of sixty years ago as the murders and violence that Quirke and his ally Inspector Hackett confront.

Quirke is burdened by a past: he was raised in a brutal orphanage, “adopted” by a powerful judge, well educated in Ireland, and as a doctor in Boston. His melancholy and self-doubt ground his alcoholism, just as the death of his beloved wife leads to his profound sense of loss. Not quite a Byronic figure, but certainly a man who would appreciate the notion that he is an ironic approximation of one. Quirke’s every pleasure is won from guilt and every self-assertion a claim for respect from an authority that will mock him. His compassion is his hair shirt. It is to strong women that he turns to face himself in their eyes.

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