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Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

I am hardly the first to roll my eyes about the oddity of the “Holiday Books” almost ostentatious neglect of religion.  It’s long been an annual joke among many people who believe that religion deserves thoughtful, knowledgeable explorations beyond the usual pressure points where it intersects with (a) violence; (b) sex; (c) politics; (d) celebrity; and (e) greed.  Oh, and did I mention violence, sex, and politics?  

Granted, the “Holiday Books” issue is essentially a cash-cow, chockfull of ads and reviews for gifty-ish books in categories like Travel, Photography, Pop Music, Humor, Cooking, Gardening, and Hollywood.  “Holiday,” in effect, means hobby, avocation, entertainment, recreation, and so on.  It certainly doesn’t mean anything to do with the beliefs and sentiments that gave birth to these holidays.  Don’t imagine that anyone celebrating those holidays might be grateful for books addressing those very beliefs and sentiments.  And might shell out good money for them. 

There’s no war against Christmas here.  “Holiday Books” is just a seasonal expression of the Book Review’s normal practice. Which is to feature every commercial press’s Washington memoir or big-name fiction while ignoring any university (or especially religious) press’s significant probing into the relationship of faith and reason.  Last Sunday’s front-page review, I’m afraid, was the exception proving the rule.   

The “Holiday Books” issue is not all gifties, however.  It usually lists “100 Notable Books,” of the year, half from Fiction and Poetry, half from Nonfiction. Profound religious and spiritual questions always run like seams of rich ore through that Fiction and Poetry—and through some of the Nonfiction, too.  Such is the human condition. 

But in 2014 was there one book, one single book, of theology, or of philosophy of religion, or of religious history, sociology, biography, or art, worthy, in the eyes of the Book Review’s editors, to be listed among those fifty Nonfiction notables?  


Maybe 2015 will be different.  This is the season of hope.


The Green Road

Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading  Irish  novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?

She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field  - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.

The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.

The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and  Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?

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Grief and Gratitude at Thanksgiving

I was at the women’s medium security prison in Framingham Sunday where I celebrated the Thanksgiving liturgy for them.  Presiding at Framingham for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mothers Day is, as you might imagine, rather sad.

I began by telling them that that day was the 16th anniversary of the death of my niece Megan who died at 19 after a 3-year battle against leukemia.  Three days earlier it was the six-month anniversary of Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.’s sudden death at 46 years of age.  Lúcás is my best friend.

I told them I had talked with my sister, Deb, Megan’s mom, about how much I was grieving over Lúcás’s death this thanksgiving.  I told her that I realized I would mourn him the rest of my life and she simply said, yes.

The women at Framingham felt comforted that I knew what grief was like at Thanksgiving. 

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Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: Favorite False Friends

Kaitlin Campbell has just posted links to the new issue of Commonweal (December 4), with a sobering and remarkably direct critique of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that you are unlikely to read in the MSM. I hope all the political junkies here will read it and comment. False Friends by Vanni Cappelli.

Latest Issue, Now Live

We've just posted our full December 4 issue to the website. Among the highlights: Andrew Bacevich remembers Benedictine monks and boyhood friends from the monastery school he attended fifty years ago; Vanni Cappelli examines two post-WWII pillars of U.S. foreign policy—Washington's military funding to Pakistan, and its support of the Saudi Arabian monarchy— implicated as root causes in Islamic extremism today; and Celia Wren reviews the documentary film Chaplains, about the work of religious professionals working in all areas of the secular world—the prison system, NASCAR, Congress, Hollywood, Tyson Foods, the military, and more. For the rest of the issue, see the full table of contents.

And, stay tuned... Soon we'll be publishing our annual guide to gift-worthy books by our Christmas Critics. (If you can't wait, you can see what last year's Christmas Critics recommended here.)

The Vatican Indictment and Press Freedom

Some years back, a representative of the Holy See spoke out in a United Nations General Assembly session about the importance of freedom of the press:

the right to freedom of thought and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to exchange ideas and information and the consequent freedom of the press: the observance of this right is necessary for the fulfillment of each person, for the respect of cultures and for the progress of science.

These comments in support of press freedom were in step with various church documents of the post-Vatican II era. But with the Vatican’s decision to indict two Italian journalists -- Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi – for using leaked documents in two books that evidently embarrassed and angered powerful people in the Holy See, we take a step back in time.

To 1832, for example, when Pope Gregory XVI assailed the “harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatsoever.” Or to Pope Piux IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which faulted “openly and publicly manifesting whatsoever opinions and thoughts.”

Simply put, this indictment is an attempt at censorship. It won’t work: It will multiply the sales of the books in question, for starters. It will invigorate other journalists to probe further. And it undermines the church’s effort to champion human rights, including the right to freedom of religion.


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So I’m at a golf fundraiser earlier this fall for a scholarship in the name of a beloved high-school classmate who died of cancer some years back. Before teeing off, a group of us chatted pleasantly... until we lurched onto politics, and one of my old friends, a bright and cheerful person and successful money manager in her mid-50s, observed that in her opinion, Obama has been a terrible president – “the worst president in my memory, anyway.”

Really, I wanted to say; does your memory not extend seven years? But I am not notably equable in such discussions, and there at the country club, at a fundraiser to endow a scholarship for students of color (our late friend was African-American), I didn’t feel like engaging in a pitched battle over the merits of first black President in U.S. history. I did however humbly promise Jane that I would at some point send her an email “conclusively refuting your appraisal of Obama.”

So, Jane, let me take out the three-wood and take a swing at it.

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Black Millennials & the Racial Wealth Gap

Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”

Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.

Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.

I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is calledprivilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:

When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.

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“I would like to have a papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” declared the 19th-century ultramontanist William George Ward. Are we currently suffering a case of liberal neo-ultramontanism?  Or quasi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or semi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or some such?      

Many others have raised that question, but most of them don’t like what Pope Francis has been doing.  I do. That includes the restoration of collegiality in the two synods on the family, regardless of the tremors caused by truly open discussion.  That obviously includes Francis’s efforts to reform Vatican offices.  That includes the remarkable series of talks he has given this fall on topics ranging from change in the church to “synodality.”

At the same time, I have to admit that liberal reception of Laudato Si’ has not been free of what used to be called “creeping infallibilism.”  And not every statement of Francis is beyond reasonable criticism.  And, in all honesty, although the homilies in my liberal parish are quite fine, I’m wearied by hearing Francis referred to in the pulpit more often than Jesus.   

What makes me raise this question now, however, is more subtle, the coverage of the meeting this last week of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  My impression is that the overriding framework for covering the meeting was this: Are the bishops aligning their agenda and priorities with that of Francis? 

That’s a perfectly legitimate framework.  (Of course, there are other possible ones, like whether the bishops are aligning their agenda and priorities with the needs of American Catholics or the challenges of American culture.)  The chosen framework has more than a whiff, however, of an ultramontanist assumption, that the bishops should be aligned with the pope and there’s something wrong with them if they are not.

Personally, I believe that there’s a lot wrong with the bishops’ conference, and a lot of it would be repaired if the bishops were closer to Francis’s outlook.  But not if it means turning on a dime.  Not if it means just following the leader, as has happened too often in the past. 

The liberal neo-ultramontanist impulse is understandable. 

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The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

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#portesoeuvertes or #portesfermees?

Shortly after word spread of the carnage in Paris, a column by an American expat living in that city appeared on the International New York Times website. Pamela Druckerman typically writes about cultural issues, such as how French parents raise independent and interesting children largely by ignoring them.

I've long been a fan of Druckerman's witty and insightful commentary. But her column this time was somber, as she described the real-time reaction at a dinner party where she was a guest Friday night.

One paragraph, in particular, troubled me: "French people are tweeting #portesouvertes, to help people stranded on the streets. We all agree that this sounds nuts: Who would open their doors right now? The news says the gunmen are still on the loose. Police are warning people not to go outside."

I'm not about to criticize anyone's desire to "shelter in locked place" under those terrifying circumstances, nor do I imagine that Druckerman and friends ignored strangers pleading for help outside their door. But when innocents are being targeted, it seems to me that #portesouvertes is exactly the right response for anyone with the means to provide sanctuary.

In another dark time, many Europeans closed their doors to Jewish neighbors fleeing Nazi persecution. But some opened up, at risk to their own lives, and these are the heroes we rightfully honor today.

Interestingly, in a prior column (headlined "Paradise Lost") Druckerman had expressed disappointment that her beloved France hasn't done enough to accept and integrate Syrian refugees, many of whom are confined by circumstance in virtual ghettos that are ideal breeding grounds for ISIS recruits.

Globally we are in a time, and at a place, where it's morally imperative to open our doors, windows, hearts and homes to refugees fleeing some of the most barbaric villains in human history. Yet here in America we have craven Republican politicians, including presidential candidates, governors, and the Speaker of the House, campaigning to slam our doors shut. #portesfermees.

Speaker Paul Ryan says he only wants a temporary halt to admitting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern battlegrounds, while we figure out how to keep out every last bad guy. But he knows perfectly well we'll never figure that out. Meanwhile, countless innocent refugees suffer and die.

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New Stories on the Website

We've posted some new stories to the website. Briefly: The editors weigh in on the terrorists attacks in Paris that "were not exactly a surprise"; Robert Mickens, in his latest letter from Rome, writes on how the pope went on with "business as usual" at the Vatican by—among other things—inviting Muslims to participate in the upcoming Jubilee year and giving a Eucharistic chalice to a Lutheran pastor; and John Wilkins contributes his analysis to our series of responses to the Synod on the Familly, focusing on what effects the "synod experience" might have on bishops who attended, and the hope this generates for the future of a Vatican II church.

For the full series of responses, including those by Catherine Wolff, Karen Kilby, Mary Lee Freeman, and Christopher Ruddy, visit our Synod on the Family reading list, where you'll also find—among other things—dispatches from Grant Gallicho in Rome during the synod, and a video of Commonweal's September panel discussion before the synod with David Gibson, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Cathleen Kaveny, and Margaret Farley. (Were there prophets among us?)

'The Beginning of the End'

The current issue of Commonweal features "The Beginning of the End" by regular contributor Paul Elie. This piece also appears in The Good Book, a new collection of essays by well-known writers about their favorite parts of the Bible. Among the other contributors: Lydia Davis, Robert Pinsky, André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Lynch (another Commonweal contributor), and Tobias Wolff. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik introduces the collection.

In the "The Beginning of the End," Elie writes about the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus and his disciples cross the brook Kidron:

The passage, at the beginning of Chapter 18, is akin to what photographers after Henri Cartier-Bresson call “the decisive moment.” It’s the moment when the hide-glue cut-and-paste job that is this gospel enters narrative time once and for all. It’s the beginning of the end, a giant step into the drama of crime and punishment whose end is the reason the story is still told.

The gospels are exalted texts, daunting to write about. So much converges there and is shown to be complex and paradoxical. But the crossing of the brook Kidron is a piece of the action that stands alone, a slice of time as distinct as anything in the New Testament.

Who really “understands” the Gospels? I can’t say that I do (though I can’t help but try). But the crossing-over into narrative time: this is something I can begin to understand. The crossing of the brook Kidron: this I can approach undaunted.[...]

Even by gospel standards the scene at the brook Kidron is exceptionally brief. It takes up a third of a page.[...] Jesus and his disciples cross a valley and enter a garden, and Judas musters a militia and goes after them, and Jesus puts a question to them and they reply, and he replies in turn—all this in a hundred words, in a scene lit with lanterns and torches and shadowed by the threat of violence.

The scene seems even tighter when read in sequence with what has come before. This is because what has come before is the Last Supper, and the Last Supper in John’s gospel is the longest episode (nearly five chapters) and most verbose one (if you doubt it, take a look) in all the Gospels.

Elie's essay is about many things: the seams between time and eternity, the way narrative time expands and contracts, and some of the many ways great artists have represented the Passion. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach:

With [St. John's Passion] Bach would see his own work magnified, so to speak—all his talents concentrated on a setting of the story of God put to the test.

The grand, doleful opening chorus; the Evangelist’s plainspoken recitation; the sonorous voices of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and the others; the crowd, wide-eyed and sharp-tongued, exultant, fierce, righteous, astonished; the rueful piety of the individual believer as expressed in a sacred aria; the chorales, softened by five centuries of Sundays; and all this over the polished stones on the streambed of the orchestra—this musical plan, this set of patterns in satisfying alternation, is so right as to seem permanent, and makes it seem as if the St. John Passion is a sacred work that existed “in the beginning.” And yet the Passion form was substantially new to Bach. The cantatas he was writing were settings of discrete gospel passages: adages, sayings, and the like. The Passion text was a story. Where the cantatas are slices of the Christian drama, the Passion is the thing itself; where the cantatas follow the seasons of the year, the Passion (it seems) happens on a particular Friday afternoon. Composing a Passion to be heard at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Good Friday—Friday, April 7, 1724—Bach entered narrative time once and for all.

You can read the whole essay here. The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner and published by Simon & Schuster, is now available in bookstores everywhere. Just in time for Christmas.

A Gem from Down Under

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but got distracted by more controversial subjects. So let me gratefully relapse into the unexceptionable task of recommending a terrific young novelist. I hadn’t heard of Evie Wyld until last winter, when I joined a public radio discussion of novels featured in the 2015 Tournament of Books. In a competition that included bestselling author David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings, Wyld’s dark-horse novel, All the Birds, Singing, won a lot of fans.

Wyld, who is thirty-five, grew up in Australia and in London, where she went to university and where she currently runs a small bookstore. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin literary award (the biggest literary prize after the Nobel), and won her a place on Granta Magazine’s list of Best Young British Novelists. All the Birds, Singing won her another slew of awards. Still early in her career, she’s shaping up to be the kind of writer who gets great reviews, racks up prizes, and sometimes doesn’t sell very much. But Anthony Doerr was that kind of writer, too, until he wrote All the Light.

All the Birds, Singing is the rare novel that’s artfully constructed, trenchantly insightful about human nature and predicaments, and deeply moving. All that, and it’s a mystery, too. Wyld interweaves two first-person narratives told by the same woman, Jake Whyte. One strand, in the present day, details the attacks made by a mysterious predator on Whyte’s sheep on the remote island farm off the coast of England, where she is living alone and lonely, for reasons that are themselves a mystery, in her middle age. The second strand takes up her story at some much earlier date, years ago in Australia, where we find her working as a roustabout sheep shearer in a team of traveling farm workers. The temporal structure of the novel is notably intricate: the present section, in England, is set in the past tense, and its events proceed forward in a conventional manner; the past sections, in Australia, are set in the present tense, and proceed backward – digging, bit by bit, deeper into Jake’s suffering past, in which she has been homeless, endured other bitter hardships I will not disclose here, and received dreadful wounds on her back. What are these scars? Why did she flee home?

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A Nation of Refugees (e.g. Cruz and Rubio) and Immigrants (Most of the Rest of Us, e.g. Ryan and McConnell)

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Migration: "I am disturbed, however, by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves—violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization." Whole Statement

Politico: "Christian groups break with GOP over Syrian refugees"

NYTimes: "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors to Syrian Refugees"

Vatican's Disaster in the Making: Probe of Journalists

One of the many interesting things about the new movie Spotlight is that it shows how slow the Boston Globe was to chase the story that it ultimately published in 2002 about the systematic coverup of  clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The newspaper had gotten similar information five years earlier, it turned out, but editors who either felt a connection to the Catholic Church or were otherwise reluctant to offend a mostly Catholic readership had edged it aside. Under the leadership of a new editor, the paper sought and reported the truth.

This comes to mind as the Vatican pursues the disastrous course of criminally investigating two Italian journalists who wrote books based on documents leaked from the Vatican. What is this but an effort to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth?

Respect for a free press -- a media free to report the truth -- requires that news reporters not be coerced into giving up their confidential sources. Most states in the United States have shield laws that offer reporters some measure of protection. There is a great need for a federal version of that law, but even without it, procedures the Justice Department has in place make it unusual for reporters to be subpoenaed -- much less placed under criminal investigation themselves for reporting the news. Italy also has protections for reporters. Vatican City does not.

There have been many fine Vatican statements about the duty of the news media to seek the truth, including addresses by Pope Francis, but they don't mean much if the church is going to be bent on criminalizing investigative reporting. The Vatican should stop  this investigation immediately. If it can't do so for the right reason -- to respect the role of a free press -- then it should consider the public relations disaster that would develop if it files criminal charges against these journalists. 


Catholic University's Business School Again

The problems at Catholic University’s business school run even deeper than I thought. Remember what is at stake: the business school has taken large sums of money from the unvirtuous Koch Brothers and other libertarian interests. The worry is that tainted money taints.

Now, CUA could try to deflect this criticism. They could argue that they need the money, and they will never waver in their commitment to traditional, orthodox, Catholic social teaching—the great legacy of people like John A. Ryan, whom Cardinal Turkson has been praising in recent speeches.

But CUA doesn’t take this approach. Quite the opposite, in fact. It actually attacks its critics and brags about these attacks. Look at the attached image. It is a photograph of a poster on public display at CUA’s business school. It boasts about taking large sums of money from the Kochs and the Busch Foundation. And it prominently displays an op-ed written by president John Garvey and then-dean (now provost) Andrew Abela for the Wall Street Journal, displaying the subtitle: “This Catholic university won’t cave to demands made by the liberal social justice movement.”

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The Real Problem with 'Faithful Citizenship'

At their current meeting, the USCCB is considering a new version of their document "Faithful Citizenship." Michael Sean Winters at NCR has a good commentary on the problems with the new draft, especially its reconfiguration of the previous seven headings into four and its continued misleading use of the term “intrinsically evil.” I have commented elsewhere on why discussions of “intrinsic evil” are misleading when dealing with public-policy matters. And the reconfiguration of topic headings is at least questionable. When presenting the previous seven headings in the classroom, I have always suggested that the special attention paid to the poor, to workers, and to creation are justified, since each of these represents a “constituency” that is uniquely vulnerable in a capitalist system. The bishops must lend an extra voice to those who are lacking power and therefore are vulnerable in the current system. Such a justification is consistent with other areas of concern, especially the unborn and the dying. To eliminate these headings is potentially to marginalize the already marginalized.

But the reconfiguration seems to me to indicate the deeper challenge the bishops face: abstraction. The new categories are  inarguably less specific than the old ones. Reading through the draft, one gets the feeling that (perhaps in order to produce a consensus document?) the bishops are trying to offer a presentation that resists partisan co-optation. They insist multiple times that all the issues must be considered together. In a spirit of charity, I won’t speculate about the possibility that such an insistance is itself a partisan move. However, even understood charitably, this retreat to abstraction isn’t the right way to address the existing problem. Do we really need another document that functions as a mini-encyclical or mini-catechesis on general themes in Catholic social teaching?

I wish the bishops could do something else: confront the real problem faithful Catholic citizens face in 2015. They should just say it: At this point, neither national party is acceptable, judged on the full range of teachings. Why can’t the bishops come right out and name this problem specifically? Certainly it would be easy enough for them to say that, at the national level, the Democratic party rejects their basic principles due to their positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, and that the party risks further entrenchment against the principles in the growing support for assisted suicide. But is it really any more controversial for the bishops to call out the Republican party for flagrantly ignoring basic principles of Catholic social teaching—especially on the critical and pressing issues of immigration and the environment? To be sure, these issues present real policy challenges, but to my knowledge, no one among the vast field of contenders for the Republican nomination has come out and forthrightly affirmed the basic principles of the Catholic tradition on immigration and the environment—even if they then might present policies that would be disagreeable. This is a fundamental problem with the typical use of the term "prudential judgment": what is open to prudential judgment are the merits of a particular policy approach. But the principles themselves are authoritative and should be affirmed. It would be refreshing to hear a Republican affirm Catholic principles on immigration, the environment, the right to health care, and the need for an economy that gives special attention to the needs of the poor. Again, there will still be policy differences. But in reality, Republicans reject the principles. Or at least they appear to—and if the appearance is wrong, they should be invited by the bishops to clarify their agreement on the basic principles.

Such a document would be a timely act of courage, which acknowledged the real challenges of the political world that actually exists in America in 2015. Moreover, perhaps such a document could be seen as a real challenge to partisans of both sides to admit the inadequacies of their respective positions. I do understand the instinct, when writing in our context, to write something that will be acceptable to everyone by making language more generic. But by writing a careful document reiterating abstractions, rather than addressing the actual political situation of the current two-party set-up, their words are more likely to continue the underlying partisan maneuvering (as people seek to exploit this or that abstraction for their advantage)…or to be ignored. A bold document that actually called parties to account might be controversial. But I’m pretty sure it would be less likely to be ignored.

Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

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Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood. A poet and an exegete, Kushner reads the Hebrew in direct English interlinear translation, and comments on what the bare substitution of English for Hebrew can never reveal. She then lists seriatim, five or more differing English translations of the same text, suggesting how each attempt tries to capture what the Hebrew says.

The philological study is not barren, rather meditative and prayerful. Every reader comes to the scriptures with a history. Kushner, raised as a Chassidic Jew with family lost in the Holocaust, traces the legacy of reading to the German city where her family disappeared – to be shot and buried in unmarked graves. Her account of her upbringing – her father a theoretical mathematician and her mother an expert in Ancient Near Eastern languages – stresses the interpretive traditions of the rabbis. She was born into the dialogue of centuries of commentary. Her brother can recite whole sections of the Torah from memory, and she spent years sometimes as a poetry student of Derek Walcott in Boston, or in other pursuits in Israel, and then in Iowa in the Writing Program, coming to terms with burden of her belief, her history, and her own aspirations as a writer.

This book is an invitation to challenge readings of familiar scriptural texts. All translators betray what they attempt to convey – this is a truism. But Kushner is particularly sensitive in her desire to show how English translators through the centuries struggled to open to believers that ancient text they so revered. Quite an experience – to be brought into the scholar’s understanding of Genesis, Psalms, and the Law. But this is passionate understanding, indeed.