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Liar and Bully Wins; Business as Usual

The Forward's J.J. Goldberg, an astute and sympathetic observer of Israel, has this assessment of Tuesday's election results. The Jewish Daily Forward.

UPDATE: A sobering assessment by an Israeli journalist, skip the part about polling and media errors and go to: "President Obama allowed Netanyahu to reach the heart of the administration's nerve center and stand there, to deliver a speech to both houses of Congress, as if he was the American president and not the head of a tiny country dependent on the US. Next to Netanyahu, Obama suddenly seemed like Isaac Herzog. He publicly hazed the president, and got home safe and sound. The Americans should have made Netanyahu pay a price, but they did not do this."  True? What would the price be?  It goes on to lay out the shape of the next Israeli government.  Whole thing here.

More: "In his first interview since his re-election victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel walked back his rejection of a two-state solution." NYTimes on-line, Thursday afternoon.

Israel: Some Sobering Analysis

While awaiting the outcome of Israel's election and the formation of a new government, the optimists (I would like to be one) need to think about the whole picture. Charles Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a man with strong views and deep knowledge gave a very long speech (said to have been given on March 10, 2014 by Jim Lobe at LobLog, and published on March 10, 2015. Lobe has now corrected the date: speech given March 10, 2015; PHEW!). Here is the link to the published speech. Here is the link to LobLog.  They are both the same! Equally long!

Freeman's analysis is sobering. As he says, he does not mince words.

Here is his set-up of the current situation. "It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.

• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.

• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.

• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.

• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.

Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.

• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.

• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.

• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.

• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests." 

Reform, and the Reform

The second anniversary of Pope Francis' election last Friday prompted a number of pundits to analyze what he's done and what's he's doing and what he might do -- perhaps the best "hot take" the interview given by @pontifex himself.

At Religion News Service, I made a couple of efforts myself, based on reporting in Rome last month.

This first one looks at how the reform of the Roman Curia is going, and tries to focus on the tectonic shift that goes deeper and is far more important than the smaller and perhaps overhyped complaints by curial officials losing their parking privileges:

The real reform, however, and the key to success, is in instituting an entirely new form of governance for the Holy See, a “system of checks and balances” in Vatican operations, as a senior Vatican official put it, that reflects the highest international standards for transparency and accountability.

It is a fundamental shift for a city-state that has functioned largely like the world’s longest-running divine-right monarchy. The goal is a more rational and a fairer system of operating based on best practices and precedents, rather than on abstract principles or ancient privileges.

“What we are seeing now is the struggle to enact that vision,” said another churchman close to Francis. “People tend to see the power plays, but it’s an intellectual and philosophical debate, and some theology.”

What's interesting is that financial reform -- which has broader backing, in part because it's a no-brainer and easier to do -- is not the only template; efforts to respond to the sex abuse crisis may be the better gauge.

My second story, "Pope Francis has history, but not time, on his side in reform push," looks at the wider "reform," or reorientation, of Catholicism under Francis.

At heart it's really about whether the course Francis has set can continue after he leaves the scene, which he keeps saying will be sooner rather than later. I set out four factors (conveniently, four "C's") that may be key the the survival of the Francis legacy (such as appointing those who share his vision, changing structures, creating expectations). But the big one, as the Rev. Antonio Spadaro of Civilta Cattolica told me, is the relationship between the Church and History:

“If history is the enemy of the church and the enemy of God, then we have to be very careful,” he continued. “Does history coincide with worldliness? Or, on the other hand, is history the place where God is incarnated, where God is present, where the church and every Christian must try to discern the presence of the Lord?

“Theologically,” he said, “this is about the Incarnation” — the belief that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “If one takes seriously the Incarnation — that is, that God made himself part of history — it’s impossible to think of doctrine as fixed code that came down from heaven.”

Sparado and Cardinal Kasper and others said many other interesting things that I'll try to write up eventually. But the other big idea is that contrary to the imaginings of Francis' foes, he doesn't seem to have a platform and agenda he wants to pass -- it's more about opening the church to the Spirit, to get closer to Jesus and the Gospels. It's not making an idol of the Second Vatican Council or going "back" to anything, but moving ahead, always, as the Council envisioned. That's an agenda in itself, of course.

Where that will lead, or if such a vision can have a structure to ensure its propagation, or whether it will always need leaders like Francis to push it, is an open question.

In American politics we often lament the focus on process over policy. In the Vatican under Francis, that’s a virtue. Policies are not the goal. How you get there is as important as where you wind up.

Game Over

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been suspected of playing a double game, of speaking one way to his supporters in Israel and another way to the rest of the world. Since 2009, he has been telling the world that he supports a two-state solution. Meanwhile, he has been signaling to right-wing voters in Israel that they needn't worry about peace talks with the Palestinians going anywhere. (According to this widely read article in the New Yorker, at a 2013 meeting with young Likud supporters Netanyahu responded to a question about peace talks by saying, "About the—what?" The audience laughed.)

From now on Netanyahu will no longer be able to play this game. In a video interview published today, on the eve of an election, Netanyahu stated explicitly that, as long as he is prime minister, there will be no statehood for the Palestinians. "I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.... Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this time and time again. We are realistic and understand.” Interviewer: "But if you are prime minister, a Palestinian state will not arise?" Netanyahu: "Indeed."

With his party behind in the polls, Netanyahu is desperately trying to draw support from conservative voters, including those who consider Likud not conservative enough. If he loses control of the Knesset tomorrow, Israeli voters will have signaled their support for a different, less hostile policy toward the Palestinians. If his coalition wins, Washington will no longer be able to pretend that Netanyahu's policies are compatible with ours. If we are still committed to statehood for the Palestinians, we will have to stand up to him. This will be difficult for politicians who are more used to standing up for Netanyahu, as when, earlier this month, they offered long standing ovations as he publicly questioned our president's policies in the Middle East—at their invitation. 

What's new on the website

Posted today to the homepage, Joseph Sorrentino with a web exclusive on La Caravana de los Mutilados (“the Caravan of the Mutilated”), a group of seventeen Honduran men currently traveling through Mexico to call awareness to the dangers of traveling north toward the United States on the train called La Bestia. “Along the way,” Sorrentino writes, “they’re holding protests and meetings to warn people about the dangers of riding the train. They also hope to pressure their government to help any Honduran maimed by La Bestia.” Their ultimate destination: Washington, D.C., where they hope to bring their case directly to Barack Obama. Read all of “Maimed by the Beast” here.

Also today, E. J. Dionne Jr. on the forty-seven Republican senators whose letter to Iran, written “in strangely condescending language that a good civics teacher would never use,” is not just “a blatant effort to blow up the negotiations” but also “makes Congress and the United States look foolish to the world.” Read all of “The Senate’s 47 Percent” here.

Also now featured on the website, an excerpt from Cardinal Walter Kasper's new book, Pope Francis’s Revolution of Tenderness and Love:

Pope Francis’s style is correctly understood against the background of the theology of the people. This style is not good-natured folksiness or even cheap populism. Behind the pope’s pastoral style, which is close to the people, stands an entire theology, indeed a mysticism of the people. For him the church is far more than an organic and hierarchical institution. It is above all the people of God on their way to God, a pilgrim and evangelizing people that transcends every (however necessary) institutional expression.

Read all of “Open House” here.

Coffin or Suitcase? Goldberg on Europe's Jews

In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.

Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots. 

The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.

“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”

After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews." 

Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.

A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans. 

Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."

As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

 

Monday Morning Links: March 16

Mitch McConnell has suggested that Loretta E. Lynch's nomination to Attorney General may be delayed if the Democrats won't move forward on a bipartisan human trafficking bill. Democrats are objecting to an anti-abortion provision in the bill. The Senate resumes debate on the bill today.

Mother Jones reports on the Housing First approach to solving homelessness, and how Utah has made it work.

Mark Oppenheimer's column in the New York Times examines a working document by a group of women for the Pontifical Council for Culture. In two places, the document addresses cosmetic plastic surgery in light of commercial standards of beauty, and "the feminine self." 

From The AtlanticHow to Execute People in the 21st Century. States are reverting back to older methods of execution, which may change the perception of the death penalty at large. See also Paul Elie's article in our latest issue on Mario Marizziti's efforts to end the penalty.

Vladimir Putin has just re-emerged after being away from public view for 11 days. On the New York Review of Books blog, Amy Knight looks at the theories around the Kremlin's involvement in Boris Nemtsov's murder.

What is female confessional literature?

Karl Ove KnausgårdIn the Hedgehog Review’s newest issue, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a piece on confessional writing and confession at large. She begins with Augustine’s Confessions as a model for confession in the most redemptive sense of the word: a full accounting for the purpose of ridding one’s self of sin. But now, she argues, confessional literature is a consumer product and (usually) female writers are the commodifiers and the commodified.

Today, when confessional literature is indeed everywhere—when there are whole industries dedicated to the production of it—the type of person confessing is increasingly the same: female, often young but sometimes not, enacting a kind of failure and misery to an audience that demands the performance but often despises the performer.

Read more

On the Gridiron

President Obama roasts Governor Scott Walker ... and himself:

Despite a great performance tonight, Scott has had a few recent stumbles.  The other week he said he didn’t know whether or not I was a Christian.  And I was taken aback, but fortunately my faith teaches us forgiveness.  So, Governor Walker, as-salamu alaykum.  (Laughter and applause.)

 

Scott also recently punted on a question of evolution, which I do think is a problem.  I absolutely believe in the theory of evolution — when it comes to gay marriage.

 

And, finally, Governor Walker got some heat for staying silent when Rudy Giuliani said I don’t love America — which I also think is a problem.  Think about it, Scott — if I did not love America, I wouldn’t have moved here from Kenya.  (Laughter and applause.)  Still trying to deal with the overstaying the visa thing.  But hopefully the court is okay with the immigration initiatives.

The rest is here. (And happy Laetare Sunday!)

Family issues: 50 years ago

“When Liberals Blew It” was the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s March 12 column in The New York Times.  The headline referred to the moment fifty years ago when liberals treated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist for proposing in a Labor Department report—eventually known as the “Moynihan Report”—that family disarray and the growth of single-parent households among African-Americans were reaching what would now be called a “tipping point.”  The leading factors countering black poverty—primarily male employment—were in danger of losing traction.  National action was imperative.

That Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty has been acknowledged all over the place—half a century too late, some might say, but in fact the acknowledgements have come steadily over the decades.  Kristof, one of our best columnists, was condensing a complicated story into a brief column, which didn’t do justice to all the details.  One liberal voice, for instance, that didn’t “blow it” was Commonweal’s. 

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It's a boy!

Happy news from my post at large, here in the wilds of Westchester: our third son, Eamon Joseph, was born just after midnight on March 10, weighing nine pounds, five ounces -- a new family record. His older brothers welcomed him home with enthusiasm and much noise. We are all healthy and happy and grateful for your prayers and well-wishes.

School's Out (for the sacrifice of Ishmael)

New York prides itself on the observance of religious holidays (at least by those whose religion it is). That includes school holidays and suspension of alternate side of the street parking (just observed Purim; Holy Thursday coming up!).

City officials have now added two Muslim holidays to the out-of-school schedule: Eid al Fatr, the end of Ramadan and Eid al Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. The Feast of Sacrifice commerates the willingness of Ibrahim (also known as Abraham) to follow Allah's (God's) command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Jews remember this event (with Isaac), and those who went to church on the second Sunday of Lent know that Catholics also remember Abraham's willingness.

This may be a welcome interfaith reminder for people of the Book. But if you were a Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim seven-year old boy in public school how might you understand this holiday? Rush to the end of the story to be reminded that God stayed your father's hand.

Greetings from the L.A. Congress

Commonweal at the L.A. Congress

Greetings from the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which, like the Los Angeles Angels, is actually in Anaheim, CA. Commonweal has a booth (#711) in the vast and enjoyably chaotic exhibit hall, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please stop in to say hi to your friends on the staff, happily recovering from a miserable New York winter here in the 90-degree California heat.

As other Commonweal people have written before, we love coming to the Congress. Over the course of four days, it attracts the biggest single U.S. gathering of Catholics involved in ministry. The more than 200 workshops include the usual book-plugging and music-shilling, but there are sessions ranging from the practical and pastoral (e.g. how to welcome autistic children into parish life) to scripture, faith and the movies, and parish leadership. What matters most, though, is not the scale or the content, but the mood. Frankly, people seem happy to be here, and by extension, upbeat about being Catholic. And if you want a first-hand experience of the American church’s multi-ethnic future, here in Orange County is where to come to get a very encouraging picture of it: Thousands of Catholic high-school and college students, hard-working teachers and parish catechists, pastors and deacons, religious sisters and brothers of every description and nationality. Tomorrow night there will be masses in five different languages, including brand-new Cardinal Soane Mafi from Tonga celebrating mass in, yes, Tongan.

So anyway, if you’re a Commonweal reader and you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to come by and say hello.

The pope's anniversary interview.

On the occasion of the second anniversary of his election, Pope Francis sat down with Mexican TV journalist Valentina Alazraki for a typically wide-ranging interview. They discussed the issues facing the Synod on the Family, the sexual-abuse scandal, the reform of the Curia, how long his papacy might last, and, perhaps most interesting, the conclave that made him pope.

“The phenomenon of a conclave vote is interesting," Francis explained. "There are very strong candidates. But many people do not know who to vote for. So six, seven, names are chosen that are a kind of depository, while people wait to see who to definitively vote for. This is how people vote when the group is large. I was not the recipient of definitive votes, but provisional ones, yes."

And then something happened, I do not know what. In the room I saw some strange signs, but... They asked me about my health...and stuff. And when we came back in the afternoon the cake was already in the oven. In two votes it was all over. It was a surprise even for me.

In the first vote of the afternoon when I realized the situation may be irreversible, next to me--and I want to speak about this because of our friendship--was Cardinal Hummes, a towering figure. At his age, he is the delegate of the Bishops Conference for the Amazon and is very active pastorally. Halfway through the first vote of the afternoon--because there were two--when we saw what was happening, he was right beside me telling me not to worry, this is how the Holy Spirit works. That amused me.

After the second vote when the two-thirds majority was reached, there was applause, there is always applause at this point in the conclaves, so he kissed me and told me not forget the poor and this phrase began to go round in my head and that's what led me to my choice of name. During the vote I was praying the rosary, I usually pray three rosaries daily, and I felt great peace, almost to the point of insentience.

The very same when everything was resolved, and for me this was a sign that God wanted it, great peace. From that day to this I have not lost it. It is "something inside" it is like a gift. I do not know what happened next. They made stand up. They asked me if I agreed. I said yes. I do not know if they made me swear on something, I forget. I was at peace. I went to change my vestments. And I went out and I wanted to go first to greet Cardinal Diaz, who was there in his wheelchair and after I greeted the other cardinals. Then I asked the vicar of Rome and Cardinal Hummes to accompany me. Something that was not planned in the protocol.

Then we went to pray in the Pauline Chapel, while Card. Tauran announced my name. After I came out and I did not know what to say. And you are the witnesses of everything else. I deeply felt that a minister needs the blessing of God, but also that of his people. I did not dare to ask the people to bless me. I simply said: pray that God may bless me through you. But it came out spontaneously, also my prayer for Benedict.

The interviewer asked whether Francis likes being pope. "I do not mind!" But it's not all it's cracked up to be. "The only thing I would like is to go out one day without being recognized," the pope continued, "and go to a pizzeria for a pizza."

Read the rest right here.

Rich and Poor: Not a Moral Vocabulary?

Fellow dotcommonwealer Anthony Annett takes David Brooks to task for singling out the moral failures of the poor, while overlooking the “beam in the eye” of the rich. Annett rightly notes:

During the postwar era in the United States, there was a fair amount of solidarity between capital and labor. Unions were strong and respected, and the fruits of higher productivity were broadly shared. Top income tax rates were high, and it was considered unseemly for top executive compensation to soar to stratospheric levels. … But the social norms underpinned this model shifted dramatically during the libertarian revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, heralded by the rise of Reagan. Now, it became acceptable to put self-interest above social solidarity. Top tax rates were cut, unions were attacked, and the financial sector was unleashed. It became acceptable to push wages to rock bottom simply to maximize shareholder returns and top executive compensation. It became acceptable to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of ethical standards to make a quick buck. It became acceptable to spend billions in lobbying for your own short term interest, while demonizing the poor, and fighting for your extra tax cut to come from their extra benefit. And it became acceptable to insist on the God-given right to perpetual pollution, planet be damned.

Annett is right that both structurally and culturally, we've shifted from a stance of solidarity to a stance of selfishness. Given that Brooks’s column offers some horrifying anecdotes of the destructive culture of poverty, it is only fair that Annett summon up the horrifying images of the filthy rich. I don’t deny the truth in either of these descriptions, but what bothers me about these kinds of dueling descriptions of our economic situation is the extent to which they have a tendency to fall into and trade on stereotypes. Again, there's truth here, but it is so easy for these generalizations to go too far, become too sweeping, and then impair constructive progress. In the first chapter of my book on luxury, I note that the tendency to lock discussions of economic ethics into structural debates controlled by “the market-state binary” means that

the debates also tend to leave things out and arrive at an impasse. They often neglect significant differences in behavior within the categories “rich” and “poor.” To put it bluntly, they trade on stereotypes of both groups, whether positive or negative, and resort to an anecdotal story or two to reinforce their preferred stereotype. The rich are either rapaciously greedy or noble “job creators”; the poor are either struggling victims in need of compassion or lazy, dependent freeloaders in need of personal discipline and a sense of responsibility. But surely neither group is in fact homogenous! “The rich” and “the poor” are misleading abstractions. Such stories often “explain” complex economic problems by scapegoating this or that subgroup – “Wall Street” or “welfare queens,” “government regulators” or “insurance company executives.” Sadly, this passes for reasoned, public debate.

So, Brooks and Annett both have valid points. There really are characteristic, if stereotyped, vices that afflict both rich and poor in our society. Both in fact tend toward the “libertarian default,” though in different ways. But a prudent discussion would get past the stereotypes and find ways to recover moral language that should be shared by all. I think luxury is a key part of that, a language of reasonably, self-controlled spending that recognizes the responsibility of using excess wealth for the common good. Wealth is there to be shared. There are rich and poor who in fact practice such sharing; there are also rich and poor who are consumed by consumption. The primary moral vocabulary is not “rich” and “poor”; it should be solidarity and frugality.

But a moral vocabulary “shared by all” is important, too. All this stereotyping and scapegoating does serve an important political function, which is a further consequence of the market-state binary: by focusing on groups of great wealth or severe poverty, the discussion tends to exempt “the middle class". If we can blame the Wall Streeters or the dysfunctional poor neighborhoods, then maybe our own lifestyles can get off the hook. But consider a different possibility: maybe the need for norms of solidarity, generosity, and frugality might be most powerful if practiced and expressed by the middle class, and particularly what I call the “39%” – that is, the upper two income quintiles below the 1%. The 39% control a lot of wealth, a lot of votes, and a lot of organizations. Solidarity and frugality could go a long way if that’s what the 39% sought. And of course, some do. Perhaps they are the really important cultural catalysts.

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

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Jean Vanier awarded the Templeton Prize

It has been announced that Jean Vanier, founder and inspiration of L’Arche (The Ark) has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. Here you can find the purpose of the prize,

here is the Foundation’s tribute to Vanier along with several videos in which he explains his thought, actions, and institutions

and here is one of many newspaper stories about Vanier and his work

God bless him and his work!

"In Paradise" - Another View

I found myself disagreeing with Paul Johnston’s review (3/6/15) of In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen’s last novel. I fear that his sober, almost disappointed judgment, putting stress on the author’s failure to engage the Shoah with sufficient spiritual vision, will put readers off.  Johnston asks for a novel that “requires us to remember – to insist- that the world is God’s creation and not our own, and that all people, including those unlike ourselves, are created in the image of God.” One can scarcely disagree with such a belief in the Incarnation, but Johnston is really posing a broader question: can literature, fiction, say anything adequate about the Holocaust? He raises a standard that is exclusive, and I would hold absolute in a way the hedges out the imagination. In the course of the review, I find that Johnston’s shows his own hesitation at the conclusion he reaches. While he admits Matthiessen achieves partial success, he notes that Matthiessen’s Buddhism keeps his vision from transcendence. As if looking back over his shoulder, Johnston can’t help but admire that struggle that is this artistic grappling with the past. The failure of the novel is what it says or doesn’t say to us and to those in the future. 

In Paradise takes us to an interfaith retreat at Auschwitz fifty years after the liberation of the camp. The participants are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, atheists, relatives of former Nazi guards, local Polish residents, and Clements Olin, a Polish American academic with family roots in Oswiecim, a town near the camp. Olin is the center of consciousness, ostensibly doing research on a Holocaust survivor, Tadeusz Borowski, and author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He is also attempting to discover his own family history, especially the facts surrounding his birth and sudden removal to the USA. The novel explores the holocaust through Olin’s interactions with the other participants and those residents of the Polish village of his birth. The plot structure allows Matthiessen to provide a chorus of voices, some pious, others abrasive, some accusatory, and other proprietary. In sum, the characters grope in speech to confront the events that took place around them fifty years before. The weight of genocide burdens those in silent vigil upon the entry ramps. Their evening statements of witness after long reflection in silence find not consensus but divisiveness, and provide real opportunities for the novelist’s characterization.

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Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

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“Tilled too much and kept too little”: An Outline of the Ecology Encyclical?

Last week Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a lecture at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. He titled it “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis."

But he might well have titled it, An outline of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical.

Vatican expert and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh called the lecture “a curtain-raiser” from “the man whose council wrote the first draft.”

The lecture’s overall themes and key phrases resound with the language Pope Francis has used since day one of his pontificate. But more importantly, it signals both how scripture will be interpreted anew against the backdrop of ecological degradation and how Francis’s teaching on “integral ecology” builds on the magisterium of the previous two popes.

The phrase “integral ecology” seems primed to become the encyclical’s central idea. Turkson describes it as “the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.”

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