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Meanwhile back in the Middle East

President Obama seems a bit put out by the incursion of Russian military into Syria and by the judgement of President Vladmir Putin that the U.S.-led coalition has made a mess of things in Syria. Russia after some days of bombing has made its way from what have been called moderate Syrian rebels to the edges of ISILs occupied Syria. These reports and claims remain hazy at least in the public realm, but the Russians are certainly doing something. But what? We shall see.

Putin's motives are not exactly clear, but are they as mysterious or as destructive as Washington sees them? Are all the residual anti-Russian feeling stirred up reasonably enough over Ukraine blinding Obama, McCain, Clinton, etc. to a clear-eyed analysis of what could be done to end the carnage in Syria and Iraq, a feat that the current coalition has failed to achieve.

In the meantime, this piece by Stephen Lee Myer at the NYTimes offers a coherent account of Putin's views especially about state sovereignty as background to Russia's actions in Syria.

"...At the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.

“Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one,” he declared at the United Nations. The Soviet Union, he said, had once sought to export “social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.”


To See What is in Front of One's Nose

We now have at least some clarity from the Vatican about the nature of Pope Francis's meeting with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Obergefell decision in June. (For those just joining us, it was revealed on Tuesday that the two met while he was in the States.) Here's the explanation Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the head of the Holy See Press Office, gave for what happened:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.

And, ahem, this further detail from Fr. Tom Rosica caught my attention: "The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday's press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue."

In short: no, this apparently was not an endorsement of Kim Davis or her claims about religious liberty, or a symbolic gesture of any kind. And no, this doesn’t seem to have been initiated by the pope – this was not Francis reaching out to make a statement about how to understand the rights of conscience or religious liberty. Unless Kim Davis or her handlers produce actual evidence to the contrary, I’ll believe the press statement issued today. It certainly makes more sense than the shifting story of her lawyers.

But here’s what must be emphasized: we didn’t need this press statement to find the claims of Davis and her legal team to be rather dubious. The entire episode seemed radically out of character with the rest of Francis’s visit, both substantively and logistically. (Read Michael O’Loughlin’s helpful and revealing juxtaposition of the way the Davis meeting unfolded compared to, well, everything else that happened during the Francis visit, including his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor.) This dubiousness is not because of panic and bewilderment from being "disappointed" that Francis isn't a doctrinaire, American-style progressive; it’s because the entire Davis episode so obviously seemed to have something amiss about it. I don’t think it’s a sign of respect for this Pope to passively accept the version of events peddled by Davis’s lawyers at the right-wing Liberty Counsel.

When a story like this breaks, it can be exploited easily by those looking for public relations victories partly because of our collective fetish for “balanced” journalism and commentary. "Balanced" journalism means treating both “liberals” and “conservatives” with a certain solicitude; the imperative here is not the search for truth, but placating the different “sides” of a story.

A kind of theologically-inflected version of this tendency took hold with the case of Kim Davis meeting Pope Francis. We were told that the Pope was being the Pope, which is to say a Christian. And that the breadth of Catholic Christianity certainly transcends American political categories! Which is true but also, it must be said, a rather shopworn platitude. (This way of approaching the Davis situation was peddled by many, but it seemed to find special favor, oddly enough, with those conservatives who just yesterday were wringing their hands over potential schism. How swiftly they seized on this episode to recalibrate their understanding of this pope!) So Francis upsets conservatives by talking about the death penalty and climate change, and outrages liberals and progressives by talking about threats to the family and the sanctity of life. Something for everyone – and something to offend everyone. How congenial. 

You can see how easy it was to fit the Davis debacle into this narrative. And whose interests it served to deploy such thinking. 

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Here We Go Again

Here we go again, with another horrific campus shooting, the predictable postmortem game of blame, grief, evasion and inaction—and the President once again expressing anger and barely concealed despair at how “routine” it has all become. I’m well aware that there’s hardly a patch of American life more trampled on and muddied—and bloodied—than the quagmire of gun laws, the Second Amendment, and our nation’s high level of gun violence. But it may be worth reviewing some facts. 

The U.S. suffers about 30,000 gun-related deaths a year—per capita, around fifteen times the rate of other developed countries. In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these deaths broke down roughly into 11,000 homicides, 19,000 suicides, and 600 accidental deaths. Half of all suicides and two-thirds of all homicides are by firearm, with handguns constituting the large majority of weapons used (rifles account for only 300 homicides per year.) Domestic violence statistics reveal that 1000 women per year are murdered by spouses, boyfriends and exes—accounting for 94 percent of all murders of women in this country—and that the presence of a gun in the household drastically increases the risk of homicide.

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Whose Side Is He On, Anyway?

Like all liberals and even a few social conservatives, I believe Kim Davis’s legal case is a weak one. More importantly, I believe the moral analysis behind it is confused. As others have argued, if Davis could no longer carry out her official duties as a county clerk without violating her conscience, then she should have followed the example of Thomas More and resigned. That might have entailed a real hardship for her and her family, at least until she found another job, but the principle of religious freedom does not protect us from every kind of hardship or inconvenience. It protects us—sometimes—from being fined or imprisoned.

It is possible that Pope Francis is not familiar with the details of Davis’s case. Perhaps he only knows that she went to jail because of her opposition to same-sex civil marriage, which he, too, opposes. Then again, it’s possible that he is familiar with the details, and agrees with Davis and her lawyers, in which case I think he’s mistaken.

Now, one can admire Francis and believe he is mistaken—either about this case in particular or about same-sex civil marriage more generally. (Or about capitalism or cap-and-trade, for that matter.) It is much harder to admire Francis, however, if you believe that only a bigot could be opposed to same-sex marriage—if you believe, that is, that all the arguments against it can be reduced to homophobia. And many liberals, including many liberal Catholics, do seem to believe that. Which is one reason the pope’s meeting with Davis has caused so much panic and bewilderment. 

Some people are upset because they believe the pope, in meeting with Davis, was being used by culture-warriors. I note that this is very similar to what some conservative Catholics have said about the pope’s cooperation with environmentalists: Doesn’t he know he’s being used by the church’s enemies, by people who support contraception and abortion and socialism? (My friend Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, has written that he finds this pontificate exhausting. What I have found exhausting during this pontificate are all the warnings that, if Francis isn’t careful, he’s going to find himself liked by the wrong kind of people.) Of course, this similarity between the response of liberals in one case and that of conservatives in another does not prove that either side is wrong. Maybe the pope is being used in one way or the other; it’s even conceivable he’s being used in both ways. But why not at least start with the assumption that Francis is a grown-up who can take care of himself, understands the implications of his actions, and means what he says. Conspiracy theories, including those that treat the pope like a puppet, should always be a last resort.*

Some have suggested that when the pope talks about economic justice and climate change, you can tell his heart is really in it, whereas, when he talks about abortion, contraception, or homosexuality, he appears to be going through the motions, saying what any pope has to say given the constraints of his office. (Once in a while he quietly signals his real ambivalence: “Who am I to judge?”) Other liberals accept that the pope really does disagree with them about some issues, but are willing to forgive him as long as he doesn’t say too much about them. They congratulate him for the Vatican’s change of emphasis and tone (so do I, by the way) and for refusing to be drawn into the “culture wars”—that is, until he went and blessed Kim Davis and her husband. Now they ask, "What was he thinking?"

But culture's about more than sex, and this pope is no less confrontational than his predecessors. In Laudato si’, he treats economic and environmental policy as moral and, yes, cultural issues, and he doesn’t seem to mind offending those who stand in the way of conversion and reform. Did you hear what he said to Congress about the arms trade? If Francis is a pope particularly committed to dialogue, he is also a pope who believes in plain-speaking.

So, if you are a Catholic who supports same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, or anything else about which this pope’s position cannot be described as liberal, you should feel perfectly free to share in the widespread enthusiasm for him. There are, after all, many reasons to admire Francis, and you don't need anyone's permission. You should also feel free not to admire him: there's no obligation, not even for Catholics. But a Catholic should at least respect Francis, and that means taking him at his word. All his words.


*For a vivid example of this tendency, see the fourth comment below.

Dorothy Day & the Gravediggers vs. Cardinal Spellman

Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.

In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."

The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.

Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.

In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:

An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”

The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.

It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Did Francis Show Us 'A Better Politics'?

We should listen to the pope, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote on Tuesday this week, for, in the words of the headline as it appears in her Nation column, “Francis shows us a better politics.” Peace, negotiation, cooperation, and, much noted for its appearance in his statements as both noun and verb, “dialogue”—the absence of these in our social, civil, and political discourse is made the more conspicuous by what many see as Francis’s employment of them. Accurately or inaccurately, dialogue has come to be understood as his default mode.

Well, there’s politics, and there’s politics; there’s dialogue, and there’s dialogue. The news (now confirmed by the Vatican and noted earlier by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels) that Francis met with Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis doesn’t seem all that surprising in light of the pope’s comments on conscientious objection during his flight home. There wasn’t a whole lot of parsing needed there; it was clear whom he was referencing, even if he didn’t mention Davis’s name. But the secrecy of the meeting, combined with the decision not to publicize it until after Francis left the United States (and then only after media requests for confirmation), prove vanden Heuvel half-right: he showed us a better politician than most have already given him credit for.

Conscientious objection is not the same thing as (take your pick) obstructionism, narcissism, or a martyr complex, which the Family Research Council was already set to indulge with an award to Davis in Washington during Francis’s visit. The timing proved opportune, and so Davis went home with a pair of rosaries from the pope as well. “Stay strong,” he is reported to have told her after their fifteen-minute meeting.

“Francis’s words … may fall on more receptive soil than the media think,” vanden Huevel concludes, “and the candidates who vie to present the most pugnacious postures may find themselves losing, not winning, support.” She wrote a day too early. Francis’s actions, not nearly so nuanced in this case as the messages lurking in his addresses or remarks, will find a plenty receptive audience as well, if maybe not the one everyone assumed he was playing to. "Pay attention to the people Francis visits," E. J. Dionne wrote here a little over a week ago. Noted. 

Civil Disobedience, Vatican Style

On his way back to Rome, Frank the Great declared civil disobedience a human right, and at least here in the U.S. conscientious objectors to war would certainly agree. When he said this all eyes turned to Kim Davis, Rebel County Clerk, although he never mentioned her name. 

It appears that he met with her (shook hands) while in DC. According to the NYTimes story, the encounter was arranged by Vatican officials and not the U.S. bishops. Hmmmm! Wow!

Three New Features & One Theology Issue

We have a lot of new content on the website: an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, E. J. Dionne's latest column, a recap of Pope Francis's visit to the U.S., and the entire October 9 Theology Issue.

Speaking with Lutheran pastor and New-York-Times-bestselling memoirist Nadia Bolz-Weber about unsaintly saints, theology, and purity codes, Maria Bowler asks

You write that your fundamentalist background trained you for reading the world in black and white, but do you think both religious and non-religious have a hard time with ambivalence and ambiguity?

NBW: I think anyone who is raised in a system where you’re striving for some kind of purity—whatever that is—is going to eventually realize how much of a failed project that is. Maybe you’re raised in a super New Age-y yoga family where you believe in some sort of purity around breathing, and intention, and being super calm about things and blissed out. Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us. Our political correctness, our feminist values, our Paleo diet, our whatever is going to save us.

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Pope Francis, the Aftermath: Catholic Social Teaching & College Curricula

On the whole, what a wonderful visit it was! But what will Pope Francis leave us other than fine speeches, his spectacular example, and fond memories? Otherwise put, lest the question sound ungrateful, what will the legacy of his visit be?

There are, clearly, a number of possible answers to this question. The possibility that interests me here, however, is suggested by a recent “Declaration of Commitment” drafted and circulated by the Ignatian Solidarity Network. “Leaders of Catholic Higher Education Globally”—by my count, 175 college and university presidents as of this last week of September—have pledged:

  • to work together regionally and globally, through all the means available to and appropriate for our colleges and universities as institutions of higher learning, to study, promote, and act on the ideals and vision of integral ecology laid out by Pope Francis [in Laudato Si’].
  • More specifically, we commit ourselves as leaders in Catholic Higher Education globally to integrate care for the planet, integral human development, and concern for the poor within our research projects, our educational curricula and public programming, our institutional infrastructures, policies and practices, and our political and social involvements as colleges and universities.

It is an extraordinary commitment, which has rightly gotten attention in the press. My question is: What will it look like in practice, and how will it be done? More specifically, what bearing will this commitment have on “educational curricula” at Catholic colleges?

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Kindergarten Redshirting

A front-page article a few weeks ago in my hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, investigates a pet peeve of mine: kindergarten redshirting. The state of Connecticut is looking into curtailing the practice.

For those unfamiliar with sports terminology, “redshirting” is the practice, prevalent in college football, of having a freshman repeat a year (the red shirt is a practice jersey, meaning he doesn’t play in games) so that he can grow physically, work out in the weight room, and be a more dominant player when he restarts as a second-year freshman the next season.

From college sports this practice has trickled all the way down... to five-year-olds. In my state, Connecticut, the age cut-off for any grade level is January 1st, meaning that the slightly older kindergartners are five in the fall and six in the spring, while the slightly younger ones are four in the fall and five in the spring. More and more parents whose children fall on the younger end of the spectrum (full disclosure: my fourth-grade daughter has a January birthday, so she’s on the older end) are keeping them out of kindergarten for a year, so that instead of being the youngest in class, they begin as the oldest. Some of these “redshirt kindergartners” are as old as seven by the time they finish kindergarten.

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Pope Francis at the Finish Line: Openness, Openness, Openness

PHILADELPHIA—In his homily closing the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis drew together the central themes of his historic visit to the United States: an ethic of care for the environment and the stranger, a vision of the family as a “factory of hope,” as he put it last night, and an openness to follow the Holy Spirit, even when that means facing the unfamiliar.

Francis began by noting that in today’s Scripture readings “the word of God surprises us with powerful and thought-provoking images.”  First, “Joshua tells Moses that two members of the people are prophesying, speaking God’s word, without a mandate [Numbers 11: 25-29].” And in the gospel, John warns Jesus that someone was casting out demons in his name (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-8). “Here is the surprise: Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow! Would that all could be prophets of God’s word!”

A lot of people were put off by what Jesus said and did, Francis continued. “For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable.” Many of them—including the disciples—acted in good faith, Francis said. “But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.” The Spirit blows where it will. What truly scandalizes, the pope explained, is that which “destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!” (This was an exclamatory homily—nearly half of its fifty sentences ended in exclamation points.)

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Seen, Heard & Not Heard at the World Meeting of Families (UPDATED)

PHILADELPHIA — More than 15,000 people showed up for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend. John Paul II proposed the World Meeting on the Family in 1992, the first was held in 1994, and subsequent meetings have been held every three years since. This year’s was the first to be held in North America.

Although men, women, children, priests, bishops, cardinals, and religious brothers and sisters from all over the world were in attendance, the 15,000 didn’t strike me as representative of the universal church. Conspicuously underrepresented demographics included: the poor, who likely couldn’t afford the time off, the price of tickets, or the cost of travel; the divorced; the infertile; the gay; and women who aren’t mothers, wives, or consecrated virgins. They weren’t just absent physically; their ideas, concerns, and struggles were also missing—or, if present, they were misrepresented through caricature and rhetoric about the truth of the church and the lies of secular society.

I was disappointed, not because I expected otherwise, but because hope is a necessary disposition for those of us who both love and get frustrated with the church—and my hope was misplaced. I hoped for a gesture of relative openness. Call it the Francis effect.

The World Meeting didn’t promise to be a dialogue, though; it promised to be a series of lectures and workshops. The lineup of speakers was probably an effective way to weed out any chance of dissenting attendees, as conservative champions like Christopher West, Robert Barron, Helen Alvaré, Scott Hahn, Greg and Lisa Popcak, and Janet Smith all gave presentations. Perhaps more frustrating than a lineup of expected and theologically aligned speakers was the invitation of non-Catholic (but conservative) leaders like Rick Warren and Elder Christofferson to give their thoughts on the family. It boggles my mind: How did Rick Warren get an invite to a conference covering Catholic views on the family, vocation, sexuality, while someone like Margaret Farley did not? Even if the church doesn’t support her views, she is an intellectually rigorous and ardently Catholic woman committed to deepening and broadening the spectrum of theological thinking in church. She could have been a panel member alongside some conservative counterpart, offering attendees of the conference a fruitful consideration of the effects of particular beliefs or policies.

There is space in the church for dialogue—it is the only church, I think, that is structurally and historically competent to bear diversity. Catholics can trust each other to earnestly desire what is good for the church, for each other, for the common good, and still disagree about how it comes to bear in practice. We don’t abandon the church when things don’t go our way; we dig our feet in a little deeper and, for the sake of the sacraments and the community and the traditions, we fight, learn, compromise, teach, fight some more. Under Pope Francis, conservative clergy in the American church will have to adjust to this just as liberal nuns have had to before. It’s part of being Catholic.

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Meanwhile, Back at the Culture Wars: Douthat on "Franciscan Catholicism"

It should go without saying that a columnist for the New York Times enjoys an extraordinary power. What an opportunity to shape, if not opinions, at least the frame of a discussion! It should also go without saying that people without power often adulate those with it. Ross Douthat has power, and he’s gotten his share of adulation. He’s also gotten attention, including in Commonweal, and has brought Commonweal to the attention of the Times’ multitudinous readers, including in his Sunday column entitled “Springtime for Liberal Christianity.” In this case it probably goes without saying that the magazine’s editors and supporters owe him a measure of thanks.

Perhaps then it is a touch churlish to be frustrated with him. But “Springtime for Liberal Christianity”—the title makes me think of both Mel Brooks and Alexander Dubcek: hard to square—is a frustrating piece of journalism.

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Pope Francis to Abuse Victims: You Are Ministers of Mercy (UPDATED)

(Updates throughout.)

PHILADELPHIA—This morning Pope Francis met with five victims of sexual abuse for about an hour. He was joined by Cardinal Seán O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and chairman of the pope's commission for the protection of minors, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's commission for the protection of minors. 

"Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered," Francis told the victims, three women and two men who were abused by clergy, family members or teachers. "I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted." Francis apologized for "times when you or your family spoke out to report the abuse but you were not heard or believed." He continued: "Please know that the Holy Father hears and believes you." Francis also expressed "regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children," and pledged to hold priests and bishops "accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children."

During his visit to the United States, Pope Francis has made only passing reference to the scandal. During a service with bishops in Washington on Wednesday, he praised "the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.” And on Thursday he said to priests and religious in New York that “you have suffered greatly in the recent past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church.”

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Pope Francis to Bishops: Celebrate the Family, Don't Complain about It

PHILADELPHIA—In a thirty-minute address this morning, Pope Francis told bishops that the family is not primarily a “cause for concern,” but rather “joyous confirmation” of God’s favor. The major pastoral challenge of our “changing times,” Francis continued, “is to move decisively towards recognizing this gift.” Whatever the obstacles facing families, facing the church, an attitude of “gratitude” for families must “prevail over concerns and complaints.” The audience included several dozen U.S. bishops, along with cardinals from around the world. 

Adopting such an attitude does not mean ignoring the “unprecedented” changes unfolding across society, the pope said. And while Christians are not “immune” to such changes, “this concrete world, with all its many problems and possibilities, is where we must live, believe and proclaim.” How has the situation of the church changed? Civil marriage and sacramental marriage are no longer “interrelated and mutually supportive.” Francis compared this change to the replacement of mom-and-pop shops with supermarkets:

There was a time when one neighborhood store had everything one needed for personal and family life. The products may not have been cleverly displayed, or offered much choice, but there was a personal bond between the shopkeeper and his customers.

Not anymore. Now supermarkets have taken over—“huge spaces with a great selection of merchandise.” Culture has become increasingly competitive. This culture, powered by an ethic of consumerism, encourages young people not to form lasting bonds. What matters is no longer the neighbor, but the satisfaction of one’s own needs in the here and now. “We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain ‘consumers,’ while so many others only ‘eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’ (Mt 15:27).” Young people rush to accumulate friends on social networks, which leads to “loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized."

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Thomas who?

When, at age nine, I made plans to become President of the United States, it was not out of any sense of the common good.  It was to repair a hole in the political universe, namely the well-known law that “a Catholic cannot be elected president.”  Ten years later, JFK beat me to it, and I disbanded my team of advisors and fundraisers. 

Kennedy’s breakthrough was not the end of the surprises.  In 1965, a pope actually landed on these shores, quite openly rather than by secret tunnel. In 1979 another pope was actually welcomed in the White House, by a Baptist president no less.  After that pope-president tetes a tetes became routine. 

The idea of a pope addressing a joint meeting of Congress, however, with Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices and military commanders in attendance was something that would have entirely escaped my childhood imagination.  But that was not all.  Speaking in that hallowed chamber, the pope sang the praises of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Truly beyond belief. 

I wonder how many people in that chamber said, “Dorothy Who?”   A great many surely said, “Thomas Who?” If it hadn’t been the pope speaking, they would probably have started googling. 

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When the Pope Was in Town

On Friday, 80,000 New Yorkers, after waiting for hours to clear security, piled into a small section of Central Park and lined up in rows to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, who was heading from Our Lady of Angels in Harlem to Madison Square Garden where he would say mass before leaving the city Saturday morning.

On the surrounding streets the pedestrian traffic moved at a glacial pace. Vendors stood beside the regular hot dog and Halal food carts selling I Heart Pope Francis t-shirts and buttons, and others walked the perimeter of the line to get into the park selling yellow and white Holy See flags—only one size of which, it turned out, were allowed through security (those who purchased the larger flags with 1.5 foot wooden sticks for handles would have to discard them).

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Pope Francis on Religious Liberty & Polyhedrons

PHILADELPHIA—When Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor on Wednesday, it was widely viewed as a sign that when it came to their (and their bishops’) opposition to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate the pontiff had their back. Sure, there was no formal address. It didn’t appear on the official schedule. But the message was clear: the pope stands with the Little Sisters. “By embracing this order of nuns,” according to Catholic League President William Donohue, “Pope Francis laid down an unmistakable marker: He rejects efforts by the Obama administration to force Catholic nonprofit organizations to pay for, or even sanction, abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans.”

This afternoon, Francis had an opportunity to make that marker even less mistakable—an address on religious freedom at Independence Hall. But rather than highlight the contraception mandate, or really any specific threat to religious freedom, Francis offered a surprise stem-winder. On the page, the address looked like the opposite of his speeches to the UN and Congress: a cloud of abstractions floating high above the ground. But on several occasions, Francis departed from the prepared text—perhaps for the first time during his time in the United States—veering from philosophical discourses about the importance of historical memory to a riff on the merits of the polyhedron over the sphere as an illustration of the right kind of globalization. Really.

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Yes, Pope Francis Is Developing Doctrine

PHILADELPHIA— Two passages in Pope Francis’s kitchen-sinked address to the UN yesterday stuck out as especially intriguing: his assertion of “a right of the environment” (not a right to the environment) and his renewed call to abolish the death penalty (not to hardly ever use it, as the Catechism has it). In the run-up to Laudato si’, some theologians (or at least one) wondered whether Francis would build on traditional calls for environmental stewardship to argue that nature itself has rights. And anyone with ears to hear has known that the pope has been strenuously pushing the church to reject capital punishment, even going so far as calling life sentences a “hidden death penalty.” In his comments on the “right of the environment” and capital punishment, is the pope, as David Gibson put it, developing doctrine right before our eyes?

At last night’s papal-visit presser, Christopher Lamb of the Tablet (of London) put that question to Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ. His answer? Basically, yes.

Calling “right of the environment” a “new expression,” Lombardi cautioned against interpreting the phrase as a “technical expression.” It’s true: Francis did not say much about what he means by this right, but he did argue that it exists because “we human beings are part of the environment.” Of course, the philosophy of rights is a complicated subject, and it’s not at all clear what it would mean for a non-volitional part of creation, indeed creation itself, to have rights. Perhaps that’s why in the printed version of the address the phrase is tucked between quotation marks. Or not—because he says there is “a true ‘right of the environment.’” Maybe Francis wants theologians (and the rest of us) to take the ball and run with it. Whatever his intent, as Lombardi acknowledged, the phrase is new—and therefore significant.

Also significant was Lombardi’s answer to Lamb’s question about the death penalty. Is Francis developing that teaching? Yes, Lombardi said. And then he reminded the assembled journalists of another of Francis’s concerns: life sentences, which he has likened to “dying every day.” Perhaps, Lombardi suggested, “he will also deepen this expression in the future.” That future may be near. Francis’s second stop during his very full Sunday in Philadelphia? Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Theologians, start your engines.

A Constitution for Non-Angels

In the new issue of the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum grapples with one particular reason why our political system isn’t working: the Constitution. Or more precisely, our fealty to it. From early in his essay:

The growing dysfunction of the government seems only to have increased reverence for the document; leading figures on both sides of the aisle routinely call for a return to constitutional principles.

What if this gridlock is not the result of abandoning the Constitution, but the product of flaws inherent in its design?

The flaw Appelbaum especially seizes on – and here, he’s following the widely-cited work of political scientist Juan Linz – is that our Constitution established a presidential system with separated powers, which tend to be less stable than parliamentary ones. In the former, “contending parties must eventually strike a deal” to get anything done, which means they are unusually vulnerable to human failure and intransigence, to say nothing of today’s crippling polarization. Ours, Linz points out, is the only presidential system with a substantial history of constitutional continuity.

What gives Appelbaum’s argument a bit more verve than the usual recitation of these ideas is that he links them to Eric Nelson’s recent book, The Royalist Revolution. Nelson scuttles the idea that the American Revolution was about throwing off a tyrannical king; instead, some of the Framers actually wanted George III to intervene on behalf of the colonies against parliament. (It was parliament, after all, who was taxing them.) Those same people helped write the Constitution, and gave us a strong executive office. Or as Appelbaum describes it, our Constitution gave us “a very traditional mixed monarchy,” not a democracy or even a republic. The president is essentially an “uncrowned” king.

It was that very type of power arrangement, however, that it’s claimed led to the English civil wars. For Appelbaum, Nelson’s book gives historical and theoretical reinforcement to Linz’s comparative critique of presidential systems of government: “[W]e should not dismiss the fact that the U.S. Constitution was modeled on a system that collapsed into civil war, and that it is inherently fragile.” More recent history supposedly hasn’t been kind to presidential systems, either. The record of presidential systems in Latin America proves especially discouraging.

What’s striking about Appelbaum’s case is how little it seems to be concerned with the Framers’ intentions, and how he proceeds without ascertaining why certain institutional arrangements were supported. I don’t say this out of a stringent conservatism devoted to the status quo, or because of my fetishistic allegiance to the “Founder Fathers.” Perhaps the Constitution should be scrapped; perhaps constructing a presidential system was a mistake. But that judgment only should be made after considering, and then finding unpersuasive, the reasons given for our institutional arrangements.

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