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Lila Ames, theologian (Lila pp.91-177)

Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.

Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.

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Pope Francis offends entire country of Mexico.

On Monday Mexico's foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribreña, complained--"with sadness and concern"--that comments recently made by Pope Francis had stigmatzed the Mexican people. The Holy See spokesman was forced to issue a "clarification" of those remarks this morning. So what did Francis say that so wounded the Mexican government?

“Hopefully, we’re in time to avoid ‘Mexicanization,'" the pontiff wrote to an Argentine lawmaker last Saturday. “I’ve been talking with some Mexican bishops, and the situation is terrifying.” Francis was referring to Argentina's drug problem. According to the UN, Argentina is the third largest exporter of cocaine, after Colombia--and Mexico. The Mexican government was so upset that it hauled in the papal ambassafor to air its grief over Francis's remarks. It must have come as quite a shock when the papal ambassador informed the foreign minister that Mexico has a calamitous drug-trafficking problem.

"Gender Theory," Nuclear War, and the Nazis

In Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi's new book Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, Francis condemns "gender theory," likening it to nuclear war and genetic manipulation. Joshua McElwee reports:

[Francis] says that every historical period has "Herods" that "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation....Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,....Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.

And in a January 19 press conference, he used "gender theory" as an example of ideological colonization, a tactic, he said, used by the Nazis.

Surely something comparable to BOTH nuclear war AND the Nazis deserves some attention. What is this "gender theory," anyway?

Francis seems to be echoing the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI in his 2012 Christmas address to the Curia:

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.

Benedict makes three main complaints:

1. He rejects the disconnection of gender from sex.

2. He complains that it is said to be socially constructed or individually chosen

3. He asserts that duality of male and female is essential to human nature.

According to McElwee, Pope Francis' target is "modern theories that consider people's gender identities to exist along a spectrum," which introduces another concept, that of gender identity.

Here, I'll start with a few definitions, basically to clarify the vocabulary of the debate, with a few comments along the way:

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Our new issue is live

Our March 6 issue is now live on the website. In addition to our three-story package “Clerical Errors: How Are We Training Our Priests?” the issue also features:

Rita Ferrone on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the vernacular for the liturgy, and what we risk by taking it for granted; read all of “Unity, Not Uniformity” here.

Anthony Annett on the importance on Catholic social teaching in steering a careful economic course between individualism and collectivism; read all of “Papal Economics” here.

Robert Cowan on the need to focus on the connection between mass incarceration and disinvestment in public education – and so to help the formerly incarcerated remain in college rather than choose to return to jail. Read all of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” here

Also posted today: E. J. Dionne Jr. on the many quantifiable successes of Obamacare – and why we’re likely to miss it should it be dismantled. And, Fr. Joseph Komonchak continues his daily Lenten reflections on the writings of Augustine; see the Lenten Reflections 2015 page here (and make sure to bookmark it if you haven't). 

Monday Morning Links: Feb. 23

Just a handful of links today:

Today, President Obama will seek an emergency legal stay to halt a Texas judge’s injunction against Obama’s program to defer more than 4 million deportations. Republicans are saying that the White House should not be so confident the injunction can be reversed.  

In related news regarding imminent White House decisions, President Obama is also expected to veto the Republican’s bill for construction of the Keystone pipeline, beginning what the New York Times calls “the veto era of his presidency.”

Greece presents its initial plan for economic reform today, but it’s drawing criticism from the left. 

Birdman picked up four Oscars last night, and Richard Brody at the New Yorker didn’t think much of the proceedings. He also seems to think Wes Anderson is underrated. 

Core Wars, Notre Dame, 2015

It’s no news that “core wars” have become rife at Catholic colleges and universities. As Gonzaga’s Academic Vice President Patricia Killen recently remarked in a paper given at King’s, the core curriculum has become “that project to which multiple and often conflicting desires, passions, hopes, fears, long-standing animosities, and deep commitments, both individual and organizational, cling like iron filings to a magnet.” (Core curriculum = an institution’s general education requirements, which all students must satisfy in some form or another.) The review of the core at Notre Dame, however, has become national news, thanks it seems to alumni rumbling and murmuring, expressed among other places on Twitter.

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“Young People Led the Civil Rights Movement, Not the Adults,” said Claudette Colvin

On March 2, 1955, 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, was riding a Montgomery Alabama bus and was told by the bus driver to give up her seat for a white woman.

Colvin had just come from class and was studying Negro History month.  She and her classmates had been studying figures Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  And they were also talking about all the contemporary injustices of the Jim Crow Laws. 

When the driver ordered her to give up her seat, she said, she could feel Tubman on one side, Truth on the other, pressing her down so that she could not stand up.   She told the driver that she had paid her fare like everyone else and that it was her constitutional right to be treated equally.

She was handcuffed by two police officers, arrested, and put in jail.  And unlike any other woman who had refused to give up her seat, Colvin was the first to challenge the law, as one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery Alabama.

That was 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous protest. 

Colvin says, Negro leaders felt safer with an adult like Parks, than a teenager like Colvin.  They may have had their reasons, but when she told the story at Boston College last Thursday, February 19, she added, “The young people led the civil rights movement, not the adults.”

After she said those words, we began thinking of those who sat at the lunch counters, those who first entered the white schools, those who travelled to Selma, and those who marched.  Her words rung true and prophetic, again, sixty years later.

Jesus in the wilderness. A video

In preparation for tomorrow's Gospel, and in hopeful support of our own forty days... Sent to me by a friend.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-6a25Yo2wE&feature=em-share_video_user

Rudy Giuliani and his upbringing

I think that what most disturbs me about Rudolph Giuliani’s  now-controversial remark that he doesn’t believe President Obama “loves America” is his comment on how his upbringing differs from Obama’s.

Giuliani had this to say at a fundraiser Wednesday for Wisconsin Gov. Scottt Walker:

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

What makes me cringe is that I suspect Giuliani is referring in some measure to his Catholic upbringing. From the time I met him in 1983 as a young AP reporter covering him on the Manhattan federal court beat, I’ve observed how that upbringing was a part of him. 

 

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Pope Francis: Married priests "on my agenda"--"reform of the reform" not so much.

This week, during the bishop of Rome's annual meeting with his priests, Francis delivered a talk on homiletics, after which he took questions. A couple of his responses raised eyebrows. First the pope announced that the question of married priests "is on my agenda." Asked whether priests who married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, Francis said that the Congregation for Clergy is looking into it, but that "it is a problem that does not have an easy solution." Pope Francis's openness to a married clergy is not in itself big news. Before he was elected pope, he acknowledged that clerical celibacy is matter of tradition, not a doctrine: "It can change." And last May Francis gave a bishop the impression that he was open to changing that tradition. Just a few months ago, the Vatican finally relaxed the rule barring Eastern Rite bishops from ordaining married men who minister outside their native countries. So it's not terribly surprising that he would say the issue is on his agenda.

What did surprise was Pope Francis's comments on the Latin Mass--or, as it was known after Benedict XVI approved its wider use in 2007, the Extraordinary Form. Francis called that decision "a couragous hand to Lefebvrists and traditionalists"--neither of whom seem terribly taken with Benedict's successor. Zenit reports:

The Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a "reform of the reform." Some of them are "saints" and speak "in good faith." But this "is mistaken", the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted "traditionalist" seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because "they presented themselves very well, very devout." They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have "psychological and moral problems."

The so-called reform of the reform was, of course, one of Benedict's signature issues. American reformers of the reform were delighted when Benedict dispensed with the English translation of the Roman Missal and in 2011 forced the U.S. church to accept a new version--one that slavishly adheres to the original Latin--that its priests still haven't warmed to.

Naturally, traditionalists are not pleased with Pope Francis's reported criticism of the "reform of the reform," not that many of them could have been surprised. He's the first pope whose ordination followed Vatican II--and his liturgical preferences show it. These comments only confirm what had been obvious since his election: Pope Francis is not terribly interested in the pet issues of liturgical traditionalists. But what he said about the "psychological and moral problems" of some traditionalist seminarians really struck a nerve.

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A journalist's sacred duty

When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.

Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.

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Elsewhere

At the Atlantic, Leon Wieseltier writes about the predicament of French Jews and the contradictions of French laïcité:

“Islam is the second religion of France,” Manuel Valls, the prime minister, declared in the aftermath of the recent massacres, which have made a grave crisis out of the French incompetence with otherness. “It all has its place in France.” [...] The problem is that pieties about diversity are an inadequate response to intercommunal violence. When members of one patch of the quilt murder members of another patch of the quilt, it will not suffice to invoke the splendors of quiltness. Instead, the harsh realities of tolerance must be faced.

I say harsh because a tolerant society is a society in which feelings are regularly bruised and faiths are regularly outraged. The integrity of the otherwise puerile and disagreeable Charlie Hebdo is owed to the range of its impudence: It insults everybody, and in this way it is respectful in its disrespect. Umbrage is one of the telltale signs of an open society. One can always respond in kind: The offended may offend the offending. (An AK-47, by contrast, is not an acceptable instrument of literary criticism.) Too many Muslims—not all, not all, not all—wish to be granted tolerance but do not wish to grant it. They do not see that blasphemy is the price one pays for the freedom to practice and to propound one’s religion. Blasphemy is freedom’s tax. The important thing is that the tax be imposed fairly—which is why the French government makes a serious mistake, philosophically and politically, when it seeks to criminalize speech that offends the Jews of France. Last summer, in a piece called “France Is Not an Anti-Semitic Nation” in The New York Times, Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs, and Bernard Cazeneuve, the French minister of the interior, attempted to reassure the Jews of France that “we are using the full extent of French laws that prohibit all forms of anti-Semitic expression and Holocaust denial.” This is a violation of the liberal order that the French government otherwise staunchly defends. The history of anti-Semitic incitement in modern Europe may appear to justify the regulation of opinion by law and government, but censorship only intensifies and embitters prejudice.

In the New York Times, Oliver Sachs, who was diagnosed a few weeks ago with terminal cancer, writes about how the news of his impending death has changed his outlook:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

At First Things, a poem by Les Murray, "Jesus Was a Healer"—too short to quote from, too good to miss.

That's so disgusting!

Recently in discussion about GMO (genetically modified foods), a friend wondered what were the real objections  to eating things that have been altered by science. After all, practically everything we eat has had some scientific "improvement," pasteurization, refrigerations, etc. But if I had to choose between two packages of cranberries, one marked GMO and one marked the bogs of Massachusetts, I'd go for the purity of bog-produced. 

What is my issue? Well...if the GMO brand is Monsanto, it raises the red flag of corporate greed. And then, if the GMO is more expensive, why pay more? And then, who knows what's in those genes? The list is endless.

The subject arises from a photo of Bill Gates drinking a glass of water produced from sewage, including from toilets. Bill declares the water great. Would I drink it? Hmmm. Fortunately living in NYC, with multiple resevoirs of "fresh" water, I might never have to choose. But others will.

The subject is taken up in a blog post at the New Yorker, "Problems too Disgusting to Solve." It analyzes the various degrees of repugnance we could have to drinking Bill Gates's water, insects, chocolate candy shaped like poop, and other disgusting and "unnatural" stuff. The article could be a test of your own degree of repugnance to potential food/drink items. Would you eat something with a dead, sterilized cockroach in it for your protein? For lent? It's a fun article.

The author, a psychologist, attributes this repugnance to the sense of disgust we develop around the age of four (when most of us learn there are many things we should not put in our mouths). One drawback: the author believes in rational and scientific proof for things and fails to consider the errors and unintended consequences of scientific advances. Who could doubt that Bill Gates's water will produce an epidemic of horrible diseases because of the sub-microl pathogens that get throught the "Omniprocesser" that took toilet water and produced a glass of water in five minutes? Disgusting!!

 

"Fasting is not enough"

Some things to consider doing for Lent:

Do something positive–not just giving up things (yet another attempt to lose weight!): (Augustine: “Fasting is not enough”). The money you save by what you give up should go to the poor.

getting in touch with people (relatives, friends)

a letter
a phone call
a visit

visiting the sick, the elderly, the lonely

repairing a broken relationship–take the initiative

asking for forgiveness
bestowing forgiveness

volunteering in your community, in schools (e.g., remedial help), in church

giving more time to your family, your children, your spouse
(E.g., less TV so you have more time for each other)

making “quality-time” for God (not just the scraps of the day)

for private prayer–could you spare 15 minutes? Maybe before you get into your day?

for daily Mass

for reading that enlightens and strengthens your faith (Do you have an adult knowledge & appreciation of your faith? Or do you remain where your religious education–how many decades ago?–left you?)

Lenten Reflections, New Stories

Today we're proud to begin featuring Joseph A. Komonchak's 2015 Lenten Reflections, which you can find on the website at this dedicated page. Now through Easter, a new reflection will be posted daily, so please make sure to bookmark this special page for easy reading. You can also access the Lenten Reflections page from anywhere on the Commonweal site (including dotCommonweal) by clicking on the Lenten Reflections 2015 link in the blue “Trending Topics” bar at the top left of the page.

Also now featured: The editors on Greece’s debt and the need for the European Union to negotiate more reasonable terms, especially in light of Greece’s recent election of a party opposed to harsh austerity measures; read all of “Let Greece Breathe” here. And, Gordon Marino offers a take on the recent travails of NBC anchorman Brian Williams: Was he in search of his “red badge of courage”? Read it all here

Lent and Inconvenient Truths

Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51). While Lenten carbon fasting doesn’t get us to sustainability any more than fasting from food gets us to health, attempts to seriously cut down the key aspects of our carbon use remind us of our preoccupation with comfort. Lower the thermostat a few degrees, and we walk around the house chilly. Forego driving, and the 5-minute trip to the store becomes a 20-minute walk – and you’re cold, too. Give up that Florida getaway vacation, and the winter seems that much longer. But the sum of all these things we take for granted is what adds up to climate change, day after day, year after year. We can’t blame anything (or anyone) else.

In this regard, Bill Patenaude is an important and powerful voice: an environmental regulator by trade, he runs the blog Catholicecology.net, and unfailingly provides serious, in-depth, knowledgeable writing for Catholic environmentalism. He has a wonderful piece on Pope Francis’ Lenten Reflection, a striking intervention in the debate between Robert George and Michael Sean Winters over the forthcoming encyclical, and a powerful piece on the link between pious spiritual practices and the environment. Most recently, he has a lengthy post on “lessons for Lent” that intervenes between Maureen Fiedler – who is impatient for Francis to change teaching on contraception in order for the environmental message to be heard – and Maureen Mullarkey – who in First Things raised the level of hostility toward a sitting Pontiff to a shocking level, accusing Francis of being an “ideologue” and an “egotist.” Patenaude writes:

 This bickering from both perspectives must please our ancient enemy, who relishes it when people don’t see what they share. In this case, the Fiedlers and Mullarkeys of the world do share an urgent call—whether in regards to our duty to protect the planet or to protect people. They both call our attention to the more fundamental duty of sacrificial self-restraint in all areas of our lives. And at all times. 

Patenaude’s piece includes extensive commentary from Fordham’s Christiana Peppard and Charles Camosy, both of whom caution against any hasty connection between overpopulation and climate concern. Patenaude also quotes Tobias Winright: “The immediate problem seems more to do with quality of life (overconsumption that disproportionately harms the environment) rather than quantity of lives, although at some point these may intersect.” Peppard puts it in her typically striking way: “Our population problem is that we are overconsumers…. [F]oisting blame onto other bodies—without gazing hard at how our own consumptive habits create environmental problems like scarcity—can be tantamount to yet another form of neocolonialism.”

One may or may not agree with some of Patenaude’s commitments, but he is worth reading and engaging for three reasons: (1) He’s clearly no free-market libertarian, (love Matt Boudway’s recent piece calling out many conservatives for game-playing in trying to avoid this label) (2) he is not dodging the lifestyle issues associated with genuine environmental commitment, and (3) he is probably working out the position that we are likely to see in Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. This makes his commentary inconvenient, just as Francis is making himself inconvenient to American Catholics across the spectrum. But precisely this sort of commentary is the sort that destabilizes us from our sometimes-self-righteous sense that it is only others who are in need of conversion. What can sacrificial self-restraint look like for us? A good question for the start of Lent.

Faith takes practice (Lila pp. 1-90)

“Faith takes practice.” So says the title character in John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany. That faith is a gift is a tenet of Christian theology. We can’t earn faith; it’s God’s free gift to us. We can develop it. We can test it out, try it on, see how it fits and how it makes us fit. Faith is not simply assenting to certain truths; it is forming your life in accordance with those truths. And forming your life in such a way leads necessarily to reforming your life continually.

In our discussions of Gilead and Home, we saw how Gilead taught us about love and how Home taught us about hope. To complete the Paul’s famous trilogy, Lila teaches us about faith. It doesn’t teach us about the articles of the Christian faith, although we see how Rev Ames – Lila’s teacher and ours – acts as a Christian. Instead, Lila teaches us the central Christian truth so nicely summarized by the chaplain in Phil Klay’s story “A Prayer in the Furnace”: “The only thing He promises in this life is that we don’t suffer alone.” In teaching us about faith, Lila teaches us about how faith, suffering, and community join to make us human.

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Augustine in Lent

 Early in 2008 I wrote to the editors of Commonweal to ask if during Lent I might send to the dotCommonweal blog daily excerpts from St. Augustine’s writings. They agreed, and many people were kind enough to thank me for them and interested enough to comment upon the texts. I don’t seem to have repeated this exercise in 2009 and 2010, but each of the years since 2011 I have returned to it and I intend to offer new excerpts this Lent, too.

Last year the editors asked that the excerpts not be published on dotCommonweal but appear rather on the main website of the magazine, under the title “Lenten Reflections.” I agreed to that and have also agreed to the same arrangement for the coming series, even though last year comments on the excerpts were disappointingly few and far between. It would appear that readers of the homepage are not as inclined to comment as are participants in dotCommonweal. But the editors tell me that the Lenten reflections have attracted a lot of people to the home page, and this is significant for the journal’s bottom line. We agreed, however, that there could be a weekly summary or collection of the excerpts, which I believe will appear on Fridays. In any case, if you are interested, you know where you can find them, and, please, feel free to comment. Otherwise I gain the impression that they’ve fallen, to use Hume’s phrase, “still-born from the press.”

Some people have asked me where I found the excerpts.

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Monday Morning Links: Feb. 16

Egypt retaliated against the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians, striking Isis targets in Libya.

The Atlantic traces the Islamic State's intellectual geneology to understand their actual motivations.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic. . . . We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.

There were many fitting tributes to David Carr after his death this week. Jelani Cobb has a moving piece in this week's New Yorker

Carr, who died last night at the age of fifty-eight, was a journalist from the ink-and-paper era who found a foothold in the digital environment. . . . . Yet he never stopped being a newsman in the old mold: he didn’t develop a brand; he built a reputation.

In light of The Partisan Review's new online presence, Mark Greif (a co-founder of n+1) reflects on today's "public intellectual" discourse. It appears it's not the intellectual part that's the problem, but "something has gone wrong in our collective idea of the 'public.'" 

Speaking of intellectuals in the public square, Jeet Heer reviews the new biography of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus at the Globe and Mail, and finds it a rewarding profile of a complex life. The review mentions Neuhaus's stance on Romero, which is particularly timely now that the Vatican is removing blocks to his beatification. 

From the start, Neuhaus was a politically ambitious padre, a holy hustler, a man of God who always had a keen eye for self-promotion. . . . Amid the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, Neuhaus flirted with the rhetoric of revolution. But after the end of the Vietnam War, he started to move sharply to the right, developing a special hatred for the “liberation theology” preached by Romero and other Latin American Catholics.

 

Remember the Battle of Tannenberg

The Graduate Record Exam in history I took at the end of college had trick questions about Canada--tricks because we knew nothing about Canadian history. A collective effort to come up with a list of great moments in Canadian history missed the mark.

Today looking at the situation in Ukraine, it strikes me that Americans are in the same factual fog. We know little about the historical or political forces at work in Ukraine. Our understanding of Russia and Putin is being made in the headlines. Europe's dilemma eludes us.

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been shuttling between Kiev, Moscow, Belarus and Washington dealing with a major EU crisis. The potential for continent-wide conflict may seem remote as long as the battle is beetween Kiev and Eastern Ukraine (with its unmarked Green Men and their tanks,etc). The European, especially the German, effort to keep the peace is rooted in a long history of conflict that the Germans may understand (and regret) more than most. One hundred years ago in the opening days of World War I, the Germans destroyed the Second Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg; not the first time or last time that Germany and Russia destroyed one another.

In the meantime, here in the U.S. our congressional foreign policy team of McCain and Graham call for arming Ukraine. President Obama has spoken of supplying defensive military equipment, which sounds benign enough until it becomes clear that this could include anti-tank weapons, etc. Those who have a handle on the bigger issues point to the danger of nuclear confrontation. At the recent Munich Security Conference (where McCain pooh-poohed Merkel's peace efforts) experts on the nuclear situation of Russia and the U.S. raised the alarm not only about the frayed relations between the two nuclear powers but about the fact that the "red phone," a staple of the Cold War, is no longer connected.

Spiegel Online has a report on the nuclear discussion at the Munich Conference.

If you have the time: A video of Ambassador Jack Matlock: "The Mistakes We Made with Russia and How to Stop Making Them. Matlock was ambassador to Soviet Union, 1987-1991 during critical moments in the agreements between the U.S. and Russia over the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sobering.