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Educational video on Laudato Si'

As we enter September through the freshly-instituted World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, we might expect Laudato Si’ to get a second wind. This is especially true as we edge closer to the unprecedented gathering of world leaders at the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals later this month—a gathering that will be addressed by Pope Francis.

In light of this, there will obviously be a lot of initiatives surrounding Laudato Si’ and the broader call to care for our common home. And this is good. Here, I will be a little self-serving and flag one in which I am involved: a short educational video, or “mini-MOOC” that explores the main themes of the encyclical. You can access it and enroll here. It's pretty straightforward.

This video is the result of a partnership between the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Religions for Peace, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/ Social Sciences. It was filmed in the Vatican in July—in the gorgeous Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And it is hosted on SDSNedu, the educational platform of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Speakers include Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute; Columbia University; William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace;…and me! Yes, I am clearly the odd one out among this illustrious group, but please don’t hold that against the MOOC!

Feedback welcome...

Political Correctness

Toward the end of the comments on my post about Donald Trump, both Tom Blackburn and Jean Hughes Raber—excellent correspondents both!—express fatigue and bafflement at the concept of political correctness, with Jean insisting that “I don’t know what it is.” we go!

I wholly understand that it’s easy to tire of a phrase like “political correctness” once it becomes a mere cudgel in the culture wars. But I have little doubt that it exists. While I’m not a campus regular, I’m no stranger either, having occasionally taught in English departments, and with some very close friends who are tenured academics.

I view political correctness as whatever impulse and/or set of commitments lies behind such absurdities as the ones mentioned in my earlier post about “Coddled Collegians.” Remember the college group that canceled a “Hump Day” event because the central humorous attraction, the petting of a live camel  (based on a popular GEICO ad in which a talking camel sashays through an office), was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent? 

Such anecdotes are silly, but they do reflect something serious, or at least I think they do. The m.o. on today’s campuses, at least among the humanities, features the elevation of group identity politics, with a special focus on oppression, and the use of academic discourses to apply an analysis of systemic power relations to individual interactions and (especially) utterances. The goal seems to be to cleanse public discourse, and even campus itself, of anything ideologically adverse. I mentioned the disinvitations of Condi Rice, Christine Lagarde, George Will and others as campus speakers. When I was at college, we eagerly invited speakers whose ideologies we were hostile to (Antonin Scalia, Cal Thomas, etc), and then debated them. Christine Lagarde is the head of an organization whose workings are central to the global economy. The student group whose protests led her to withdraw blamed her for “the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” That doesn’t sound like an attitude of eagerness for inquiry.  

Last December the President of Smith College sent out an email, in support of students protesting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that included this sentence:  “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.” She was roundly condemned for this by students and faculty alike. Now, the validity and function of the utterance “all lives matter,” in the wake of events that impinged upon, and destroyed, black lives—well, that’s a fruitful topic for discussion. What followed was not discussion, however, but apology. Her statement was, in effect, viewed as sin, and she was appropriately repentant. 

People seem to be spending a good deal of time waiting for other people to transgress, so that they can pounce. When I was visiting writer at an elite liberal arts college I published a fictional narrative with a black man as the protagonist (I am white). I was assailed by a progressive political scientist (also white) for my “audacity” in presuming to inhabit the point of view of the African-American underclass; he cheerfully skewered the story as an act of cultural and political appropriation. These tropes are common. Today it is my sense that the “white privilege” discourse is often being used in a similarly unhelpful way. Again, discussing white privilege as a concept—taking it on as a subject within an academic discipline—is fine, is necessary.  But using it to dismiss someone’s standing to speak is not fine.

The authors in “The Coddling of the American Mind” describe a pair of matched, hypersensitive attitudes that—if they really do prevail on campus—are dismaying: a quick instinct for excoriating judgments on one side, and a kind of cringing timidity on the other. My professor friends tell me that their own politics—classic Enlightenment/ New Deal/ traditional Democratic liberalism, whatever you want to call it—are viewed as hopelessly benighted...and that any attempt to question any aspect of the dominant campus discourse on race, gender, etc., risks being branded reactionary.

Is this true? Consider the following anecdote. Before I blogged about “The Coddling of the American Mind,” I joined an email exchange with three close friends of mine—all academics—who were going back and forth on the essay, and the issue of campus speech, in a rewarding way. One is a college administrator, and when I mentioned that I intended to post something on my blog, he immediately and with palpable worry emailed me and insisted that I neither mention him nor his college, nor make public any of his remarks on this issue.

I was disappointed by his hasty retreat, and he knew it. But, he said in his email, “it’s the culture we live in.” Quod erat demonstrandum!

The last thing I’ll note is that there are, of course, way worse things than whatever it is I’m trying to describe. The real America beyond the campus remains afflicted by poverty, inequality, crime, racial bias in housing and jobs, and a whole host of other problems that do not receive enough attention. Meanwhile, on campus, every utterance is scrutinized for the slightest conceivable offense. I guess I’m not always convinced that the latter is a meaningful step toward addressing the former.

So I hope that keeps the conversation rolling!

Something to Think About (2015)

Front page NYTimes, right-hand column: "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities."

Almost every possible theory of "Why," seems to be mentioned here. Guns. Gangs. Police laying off enforcement. Socialmedia. Movies. Music.

Any left out?

New Issue, Now Live

Our full September 11 issue is up on the site. Among the highlights:

Luke Timothy Johnson reflects on the joy and insight gained by reading and rereading Thomas Merton, especially the man's journals.

The journals suggest that the most famous monk of the twentieth century was not really a monk, in this most basic sense: at the heart of the monastic life is the refusal to see oneself as an exception or as exceptional; obedience to the rule and the abbot do not apply only to others, they apply above all to oneself. But such a sense of being special everywhere pervades Merton’s journals.

Read all of "The Myth, the Monk, the Man"—in honor of the centenary of his birth—here.

Gregory Orfalea digs into the current debate on whether Franciscan priest Junípero Serra, the "founder of California," should be considered a saint, a colonizer, or both:

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Short Stories, Long Days

Last week Nick Ripatrazone penned a love letter to John Cheever's iconic short story, "The Swimmer." (You can read the full-text of the story as a PDF here.) That story's opening line remains a favorite of mine: "It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.'" But it's not merely set in the summer; Ripatrazone nudges us to read it during the summer, too — especially as the story's sadness seems to match the barely perceptible chill you can begin to feel as August draws to a close. How Ripatrazone finishes his essay:

Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.

Reading this piece I realized that I have a go-to summer story myself. Perhaps fittingly, it too features a man in water.

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The Appeal of Trump

I know Commonweal readers can happily live without my take on Donald Trump. But The Donald can’t restrain himself, and neither can I. Trump is pure fodder for cultural and political commentary, a phenomenon crying out for explanation. Why Trump, why now?

One can explain his candidacy as the apotheosis of politics-as-entertainment (as Matthew Sitman did on this site two weeks ago) or as the ultimate coarsening of civic discourse. There’s also Americans’ complicated, paradoxical attraction to über-wealthy politicians, our belief that to be unbuyable is to be incorruptible. By extension, since Trump already has celebrity, voters can assume that he isn’t just trying to pull a Huckabee, parlaying visibility into a job and money.  And, as many have noted, there’s the candidate’s deft channeling – and stoking – of white working-class disaffection.

But there’s more to the Trump phenomenon than all that. Commentators seem specially irked by the man, especially those who try to apply conventional rules of politics -- or civility.  Charles Blow’s recent dyspeptic column, titled “Enough is Enough,” expresses disbelief and no small measure of outrage at the durability of Trump’s candidacy. Reminding readers that “this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering,” Blow blames confreres in the press for “drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue,” pronounces himself “disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy,” and vows henceforth to stop paying attention.

The column cites a Politico article listing Trump’s most inflammatory remarks over the years. Trump’s “vilest hits,” as Blow calls them, include the following:  “The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market.” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” “Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

Everyone involved in politics is dumbfounded by the failure of such explosive pronouncements to sink Trump’s candidacy. After the Megyn Kelly blowup, many predicted that Trump he was through. After the gratuitous insults to John McCain’s war record (“I like people who were not captured”), people really thought he was through (New York Post headline:  “Don Voyage!”).  And yet he lives to calumniate another day. How? How does a candidate taken to task by a female journalist for calling women pigs and dogs respond by charging her with being unbalanced by menstruation – or slander the patriotic sacrifice of a documented war hero – and survive?

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Core Confusion

An op-ed in today’s Times discusses the ever-controversial Common Core educational standards currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Politically, the Common Core has proved to be the mother of all strange-bedfellows issues, with both the left and the right roundly condemning it – for completely different reasons. The left sees Common Core as part and parcel of an excessive emphasis on testing and on linking those test results to teacher evaluations. It worries that the standards are too challenging, and that high rates of failure will afflict minority and under-resourced children. A popular blogger here in Connecticut, Jonathan Pelto, has made a career out of opposition to the Common Core, routinely calling it “child abuse.”

These are the judgments of those on the left who view all school reform as an evil plot to break teacher unions and enrich corporate educational interests. The right, meanwhile, seemingly unaware that the Common Core was initially a Republican policy initiative, has subsumed the standards within the bugaboo of federal control, demagogically misconstruing Common Core as a kind of educational Obamacare -- yet another way in which a nefarious federal government seeks to control every aspect of our lives. And so the standards are sandwiched between darkly conspiratorial attacks from both political sides.

A lot of the fears strike me as misperceptions. The Common Core is like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: everyone has an opinion, but how many people have actually read the thing? You can go online and look at the standards. Like all bureaucratic documents they’re laid out in a bewildering panoply of sections and subsections. But individual standards seem sensible.

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Doggie Day Care—the Pope, and Amy Schumer

Big puppy

Last spring, I got a puppy, whom I named Ziva. At the beginning, like any baby, she was tiny and slept most of the time.  I took her to a couple of seminars and she dozed at my feet. During the last seminar of the year, she hit the doggie version of the terrible twos. Ziva pulled my shoes off each of my feet in turn, took them to the middle of the space created by four sqared off tables, and proceeded to shake them to kill them, and after they were well and truly dead, to chew on them with great enthusasiasm. After they were sufficiently masticated, she strolled around to inspect various students' backbacks, sniffing for food and chewy things--which she defines broadly. 

Her seminar days were clearly behind her.

This wasn't a problem in the summer--but school is beginning again. So I decided on doggie daycare rather than leaving her home alone all day. I suspect Pope Francis would think this is crazy--he's cautioned people against treating pets like children.  But it's Amy Schumer's sendup of doggie daycare that made me wince the most.



Police on the street? Or not?

The recent discussion Here on Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter dwindled away (no one really wanted to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me in spite of a couple of recommendations that we give it a try).

However, I was reminded of one of the other questions left outstanding: Does BLM want more police on the street, in this case responding to a spike in violence, in Washington, D.C.? Mayor Muriel Bowser, was interrupted by BLM activists in the midst of announcing new measures to deal with the situation in a neighborhood where there has been, according to the WashPost, a 95 percent increase in homocides (no actual number is given). The story reports that the crowd was not of one mind and Bowser continued to speak, finally giving up after 30 minutes. The crowd both booed and applauded.  Wasington Post 


See update below. 

The release of the first Planned Parenthood sting video—in which Deborah Nucatola, the organization’s senior director of medical services, graphically explained, during lunch, how a physician might alter an abortion procedure to obtain certain organs, and what a clinic might expect to be paid for procuring such specimens—brought with it equal measures of outrage and skepticism. Outrage from prolifers (and those who don’t identity with the movement) that someone could so casually describe such a thing in between sips of wine and forkfuls of salad. Skepticism from prochoicers (and others) who weren’t convinced that the video, captured deceptively and edited to maximize shock value, fairly portrayed Nucatola or her employer.

The Center for Medical Progress—the group that carried out the sting operation—accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue in violation of federal law. (Reimbursement for expenses is legal. Making money on the process is not.) But that first video, especially in its unedited form, did not quite prove that charge. Nucatola explicitly says that Planned Parenthood wants to avoid seeming to profit from fetal-tissue donation. The activists posing as buyers push her to say how much Planned Parenthood expects to receive for a specimen, and she mentioned a few numbers, thirty dollars on the low end, one hundred on the high.

Planned Parenthood promptly denied CMP’s allegation, explaining that their clinics follow the law:

At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health-care provider does—with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards. There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood. In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.

Yet almost as soon as Planned Parenthood released that statement, documents surfaced that called it into question.

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Sexual Assault on Campus

The riveting and painful news accounts of the St. Paul’s School rape trial are unusual only for being set at one of the most privileged and wealthy private schools in the country. But the story itself has been way too familiar in recent years on college campuses, where the issue of sexual assault has brought colleges massive protests, scrutiny from the federal government, and much institutional soul-searching. Our state university here in Connecticut settled for $1.3m with five plaintiffs who alleged that their complaints of sexual assault and harassment were ignored by UConn, and my alma mater, Amherst College, got a lot of press when a student’s harrowing account of date rape went viral three years ago. Some statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted during their college years.

This swirl of dismal realities led me to catch up on a book I’d meant to read when it came out last spring: Missoula, journalist Jon Krakauer’s account of several sexual assaults that occurred – or were alleged to have occurred – at the University of Montana. Krakauer first became known for Into the Wild, the story of a college kid who fled civilization to head out, alone and unaided, as far away as he could get - a tragedy that ended with his death from starvation in a remote reach of Alaska. Krakauer later became famous for his chronicle of a doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air, which again betrayed his fascination with the harshness of nature and those who choose to risk their lives in it.

Given these preoccupations, Missoula seems a strange book for him to have written, and maybe just a strange book, period. It’s part police procedural -- a kind of extended Law and Order episode -- part social-work trauma primer, and part indictment of the inadequacy of the police and criminal justice systems vis-à-vis victims of sexual violence. Krakauer reveals that the book’s origins lay in surprising revelations by a younger female friend about having been raped by an acquaintance years ago; stunned, Krakauer decided to educate himself about the subject. Looking for survivors who would tell him their stories, he set out “to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.” The resulting book lies somewhere between lurid exposé and earnest advocacy journalism.

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University Ethics

Yesterday morning I was in the gym and something from the Law and Order franchise caught my eye about a NYC high school, where the principal thinks she knows everything and as a matter of fact she doesn’t. The episode had a criminal in it (who got caught) but the story was about how the principal needed to get acquainted with ethics in order to become a better principal. She needed to learn more about accountability, transparency, prudence, justice and respect.

I like stories like this one, stories about ethics changing institutions, making them better, making them flourish. I have done some work on the church’s need to learn ethics and now I am working on the university’s need. Like Yale’s Wayne Meeks, I believe that making morals means making community and making community better.

I began to see this as a priest living in Boston during the sexual abuse scandals. The church, the other institution that teaches ethics was not practicing ethics. There I began to see that though as a seminarian I was trained to study with my other classmates on medical, marital, sexual, and other areas of ethics, so that I could speak to and teach others about ethics, I was not taught, nor were the priests or bishops ahead of me what were the virtues, values, and norms of conduct that I should follow as ordained. Somehow given our status, there was the presumption that ethics came with the vocation. 

In a similar way, university faculty, administrators, staff, boards of trustees and students are really not taught the professional ethics that belong to their sphere of responsibilities. People presume that since the faculty teach ethics, the university should know it. That’s not necessarily the case.

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While the U.S. Congress takes its late summer break and President Obama works to secure the passage of the Iran nuclear agreement, we should notice that the U.S. is not the only nation having the flibberdigibits--although we are probably having the most serious case of them.

Russia, one of the signatories, is also having its anxieties about whether the deal is good for Russia. The major concern seems to be whether the deal confirms Russia's great power status or underminds it. And then, if its turns out to be good for the U.S., will it be bad for Russia (a version of if it's good for Iran, it will be bad for the U.S.). Lobelog.

Poll: Pope Francis and Former Catholics

A new poll released in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States offers data that suggest the pontiff will have the ear of many Catholics who have left the church or otherwise become discouraged with its leadership.  

The poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service presents an interesting profile of those who identify as former Catholics, a group that it says comprises 15 percent of the U.S. population. It finds a gender gap, for example: former Catholics tend to be male (55 percent) while current Catholics are more likely female (56 percent). The former Catholics are more likely to identify as liberal (37 percent) than current Catholics (27 percent) or as political independents (50 percent, former Catholics; 36 percent, current Catholics).

Former Catholics are reported to have a much more positive view of Pope Francis (64 percent approve) than of the church (43 percent). Similar gaps can be found among young people and liberals.

Catholics are much more likely to say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics (80 percent) than to say the U.S. Catholic bishops do (60 percent).

While some conservative Catholics have objected to Francis's priorities,  the poll suggests that overall, American Catholics have a more favorable feeling toward their church than they did before Francis became pope. (56 percent said their feelings had changed, and of those 3 out of 5 said their feelings toward the church had become more favorable.)


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Can Hope Combat Despair (and Denial) on Climate Change?

With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.

“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.

For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.

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Bringing Bernie Back Home

The other day, as I was heading home to my apartment in Washington Heights—a small, somewhat close-knit neighborhood, geographically isolated from the tourism and crowds generally associated with Manhattan—I encountered a young man and woman with clipboards, gently trying to intercept passersby. "Hey," the man made eye contact, "have you heard about Bernie Sanders?" "Yeah,” I said, giving a thumbs-up and walking on, proud I'd been able to answer them in the affirmative. But they both lunged toward me, and started speaking very quickly. "Awesome! Are you registered? Do you know about our group? Are you interested in participating in our events? Do you want to volunteer?"

Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders currently doesn't have a New York City campaign office because, as I was to learn in the course of my encounter, he "didn't think people would like him this much." And so groups like the one I ended up learning about that day—Washington Heights for Bernie Sanders (they call themselves Bernie WaHi)—are getting ready for when he sets one up.

"We realized that the campaign didn’t have the structure yet in New York or as much funding as some other candidates,” said Adam Masser, one of three Sanders organizers who facilitate events and volunteer assignments in Northern Manhattan. Masser and his friends saw a "real opportunity to get the word out on behalf of Bernie and start organizing." So they started inviting their friends, and then their neighbors, to mobilize fellow Bernie supporters while also cultivating new ones.

Still a problem for Bernie at the moment is name recognition: “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t register with the same immediacy that “Hillary Clinton” does. So Bernie WaHi will focus on that, while also hosting more events and recruiting more volunteers. Voter registration is also part of the plan: Supporters are seeking to sign up people who’ve never voted, and to get registered Independent and Green Party voters to register as Democrats before the October 9 deadline.

Bernie WaHi takes its name from Washington Heights, but it covers a wider geographic area that includes Northern Manhattan, Harlem, Inwood, and the South Bronx—all bordering neighborhoods. At a citywide organizing meeting with twenty other organizing leaders, Adam and others agreed to work together and make sure every voting district is covered.

I asked him if they had official word Sanders was opening an office or if this was all "just hope." "Definitely not just hope. But,” Masser admitted, “there hasn't been any official word." Sanders has offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and in his home state of Vermont. Whether or not an office is ever opened in Manhattan, there will “definitely be campaign events,” Masser said, and he will definitely have a body of volunteers mobilized.

A sentiment I have heard repeated is “I don’t really like Hillary, but Bernie is…” Too old, too left, too radical, too something. And then I hear, “I would love to see him as president, but I don’t have too much hope it will happen.” But the more I meet people like Masser and his fellow Sanders supporters, the less I accept that.

Sanders is in an “upward trajectory,” Masser pointed out. His main message—that this country belongs to all of us, not just the billionaire class—resonates with a lot of people. He is the only candidate who doesn’t have a super PAC—something not lost on those most turned off by the state of presidential politicking.

But Sanders would probably be the first to admit he needs all the help he can get, where he can get it. Could the grassroots efforts in his hometown provide another boost?

Popes in the City

Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)   

Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter. 

Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.

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Down Syndrome and Abortion

On a vacation at a ranch we met a family that included Harry, a three-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He couldn’t yet speak words, and expressed himself via loud exclamations that sometimes ascended into a strange and unfamiliar kind of cackling laugh. The first time I heard it in the dining room, not seeing the source of the noise, I was startled and thought, What is that?

It wasn’t long before exasperation was replaced by affection.  The boy was so sweet, so thoroughly delighted and delightful and full of love, it was easy to fall for him. “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” I took to saying to him as he raced about, laughing.

I thought about Harry today when I read the story about proposed legislation in Ohio that would outlaw abortions done on Down Syndrome fetuses. It is very easy for me to agree that ridding the world of its Harrys --  up to 90% of diagnosed Down Syndrome pregnancies in the U.S. are terminated -- is an ugly and misguided project, on multiple levels. Even pro-choice advocates express grave doubts about abortions done to de-select certain kinds of babies. (The article points out that a number of states have already outlawed abortion for gender selection.) As pre-natal genetic diagnosis grows ever more effective, this theme is sure to grow ever larger, and the eugenic shadow it casts that much darker.

Yet while personally anti-abortion, I’m hardly an absolutist (no overriding problem with rape and endangered-mother exceptions), and I recognize the complexities of living in a pluralistic country which has decided to accept legal abortion in most cases. Moreover, I tend to look pragmatically – and warily -- at the likely pitfalls that would result from attempting to return to across-the-board pre-Roe v. Wade prohibitions.

So it’s not surprising, I guess, that I see some problems with the Ohio legislation. First, how to enforce laws that depend on ascertaining motive? All a woman would have to do is attest to some other plausible motive. Will we give lie detector tests? Even proponents of these laws admit that there has been, and is likely to be, no enforcement. And absent enforcement, one assumes that the law has other purposes, giving weight to abortion advocates’ suspicion that such laws are tactically designed, as the article says, to divide and conquer – “[driving] a wedge between supporters of disability rights and backers of abortion rights.”

Maybe that’s a good thing, if -- as one abortion defender complains -- “by focusing on the diagnosis of a fetal condition, [such a law] edges toward recognizing the fetus as a person.” The merits of such a recognition will surely be the dividing line for voters on this issue. I confess to some ambivalence.

And yet... there’s Give ‘em Hell Harry, and his crazy, lovable, life-affirming laughter.

Stephen Colbert on Learning to Love the Bomb

If you read one article this late-summer Sunday, make it Joel Lovell's GQ profile of Stephen Colbert. It especially will be of interest to Commonweal readers for the moving way Colbert talks about the suffering and loss he's experienced in his life – most of you will know his father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was ten years old – and their relationship to his Catholic faith. But what stayed with me from the piece was not just the wisdom and lack of cant with which Colbert talks about pain and loss, but the affirmation and joy and gratitude with which they're mingled. An example:

He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

Or consider this anecdote also mentioned in the article: Colbert once had a note taped to his computer that read, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God." 

The persistence of gratitude and joy in his life connects to what Colbert describes as "learning to love the bomb," a phrase taken from a director he worked with early in his career. The explanation for it is below the fold, mainly because it comes at the end of the article – some might want to read it first in context, fresh. Here it is:

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In Norcia, Topping the Charts

Norcia is my favorite town in Italy. Tucked into the  far southeastern corner of Umbria, it is the home town of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica; the home of great butchers dating to medieval times; and the jumping-off point for hiking excursions into the nearby Sybillini Mountains National Park. And so the walled town has the lovely Basilica of St. Benedict and a lively community of young monks; the best prosciutto, wild boar sausages and truffles from an enticing array of butcher shops; and views of towering mountains.

Now, USA Today reports, the community has an album topping a chart in Billboard magazine—"Hymns to Mary" sung by the Benedictine monks.