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Cameron's Luck

Why did British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party do so well in last night's election, despite his government's failed austerity program and despite his having come very close to presiding over the dissolution of the United Kingdom? Simon Wren-Lewis's answer is as good as any.

According to Wren-Lewis, an economist at Oxford University, Cameron has been incredibly lucky. His luck began with the fact that his party was not in power when the financial crisis hit Britain in 2008. (In this country, it was our conservative party that held the White House when the housing bubble finally burst: bad luck for the Republicans—but bad luck they deserved, since they had been the first and most enthusiastic proponents of the kind of deregulation that caused the crisis.) After Cameron became prime minister in 2010, his coalition government quickly implemented procyclical fiscal policies that kept the British economy from recovering, but he got away with blaming the lingering recession on the previous government: he said he was only making the hard choices the Labour Party had put off. As Wren-Lewis explains:

I’ve not come across a single non-City, non-partisan economist who does not concur with the view that the performance of the coalition has been pretty poor (or simply terrible), yet polls repeatedly show that people believe managing the economy is the Conservatives’ strength. This trick has been accomplished by equating the government’s budget with the household, and elevating reducing the deficit as the be all and end all of economic policy.

This allowed Cameron to pass off the impact of bad macro management in delaying the recovery as inevitable pain because they had to ‘clear up the mess’ left by their predecessor. In a recent poll a third of people blamed Labour for austerity. Yet for that story to work well, the economy had to improve towards the end of the coalition’s term in office. The coalition understood this, which was why austerity was put on hold, and everything was thrown at the economy to get a recovery, including pumping up the housing market. In the end the recovery was pretty minimal (no more than average growth), and far from secure (as the 2015Q1 growth figures showed), but it was enough for mediamacro to pretend that earlier austerity had been vindicated.

"Mediamacro" is Wren-Lewis's term for the intuitive but demonstrably false idea that government budgets work like household budgets. It ought to be the media's job to help dispel this misconception, but in the United Kingdom even more than in the United States journalists have mainly failed in this task. They have lazily, and sometimes dishonestly, reached for the macroeconomic theory that is simplest to explain rather than the slightly more difficult one that most economists accept.

Then there's Scotland. If Scottish voters had chosen independence last September—and they almost did—Cameron might have looked like one of the weakest prime ministers in modern history. Wren-Lewis writes:

The Scottish independence referendum in September last year was close. 45% of Scots voted in September to leave the UK. One of the major push factors was the Conservative led government. If Scotland had voted for independence in 2014, it would have been a disaster for Cameron: after all, the full title of his party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. That was his first piece of Scottish fortune. The second was that the referendum dealt a huge blow to Labour in Scotland. Labour are far from blameless here, and their support had been gradually declining, but there can be no doubt that the aftermath of the referendum lost them many Scottish seats, and therefore reduced their seat total in the UK.

So there you are: Cameron's a lucky man. He should savor his luck while he can, though, for there are reasons for him to worry his luck may soon change.

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

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Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

New stories on the homepage

We’re currently featuring three new stories on the homepage.

First is Robert Mickens’s latest Letter from Rome, in which he writes on what’s likely to be a “long and forceful campaign by church officials to defend” the canonization of Junípero Serra, on the behind-the-scenes work to launch the Holy Year of Mercy, and on photographic evidence of a female archbishop inside the Vatican. Read the whole thing here.

Also, David O’Brien comments on the news that Vermont's Bernie Sanders is running for president and why this makes now a good time to become reacquainted with socialism, American-style. Read “A Socialist for President?” here.

And, Fran Quigley looks at how efforts to organize service-sector employees in Indiana may be starting to bear fruit for workers making a fraction of what the state's vanished manufacturing jobs once paid; read all of “Labor Gains” here. 

Elsewhere

In a Baffler essay titled "People Who Influence Influential People Are the Most Influential People in the World," George Scialabba writes about the history of the New Republic:

Like generations of his successors at the magazine, [Walter] Lippmann was a bright young Harvard graduate who quickly plugged himself into political Washington and literary New York. Soon he and [TNR founder Robert] Croly were dining regularly with President Wilson’s senior adviser, urging him to “let us know whether or not we are misinterpreting what the President is trying to do,” lest the magazine unintentionally “conflict with the purposes of the government.” Intelligence at the elbow of power—this has always been The New Republic’s ideal. Nowhere is this ideal more lovingly commemorated than in The New Republic’s latest anthology, Insurrections of the Mind, published last year to mark the magazine’s one-hundredth anniversary. Respectful Suggestions of the Mind would have been, on the whole, a more accurate title.

In this week's New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about Saul Bellow:

Structure was always Bellow’s weak point. One of his first editors at Partisan Review, Dwight Macdonald, worried about what he called a “centerless facility.” [Norman] Podhoretz was not wrong about the problem of shapelessness in “Augie March.” The novel’s antic style is like a mechanical bull. For a few hundred pages, Bellow is having the time of his life, letting his invention take him where it will. By the end, he is just hanging on, waiting for the music to stop. It takes the story five hundred and thirty-six pages to get there.

In the Guardian, the novelist Juian Barnes writes about a lifetime of looking at paintings.

Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation. Braque thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting. But we are very far from reaching that state. We remain incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things, to form opinions, to argue. Put us in front of a picture and we chatter, each in our different way. Proust, when going round an art gallery, liked to comment on who the people in the pictures reminded him of in real life; which might have been a deft way of avoiding the direct aesthetic confrontation. But it is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence. And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.

The Evil Empire is back!

No, this isn’t a fanboy post about the new “Star Wars” trailer – you can get the Catholic reax on that in this viral video. Instead, this is a confession of sorts, for failing to recognize a clear and present danger when I should have seen it.

I am referring to the blockbuster revelation that liberation theology was ALL A SOVIET PLOT! The revelation first emerged in a May 1st (May Day, International Workers Day – hello, clue phone!) interview by Catholic News Agency with Ion Mihai Pacepa, who served in Communist Romania’s secret police before defecting to the United States in 1978 (the year John Paul II was elected – Hmm…. Another clue? Or “Red” herring?).

Pacepa explains that liberation theology was in fact “born in the KGB, and it had a KGB-invented name: Liberation Theology.”

As the interviewer rightly says, “The birth of a new religious movement is a historic event. How was this new religious movement launched?”

Pacepa helpfully explains – though I had trouble following at points – that he learned about the program during a “vacation” that then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made to Romania, in part apparently because it is a “Latin” country and therefore could help export this new liberation theology to “Latin” America. (Of course I’d always thought it was the invention of German theologians, but whatever.)

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Bagels, doughnuts, and scones

If Mike Huckabee violated campaign finance laws, would anyone take note? And who would do anything about it?

The answer to the first question is yes: As reported in The Washington Post, the Campaign Legal Center has called out Huckabee on the first day of his presidential candidacy for a remark he made during his announcement speech: “I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people who will find out that $15- and $25-a-month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground… . Now, rest assured [he said to laughter], if you want to give a million dollars, please do it.” According to the center, that’s a violation, joke or not, since candidates for federal office can solicit amounts no larger than $5,000. And if he was suggesting that people direct their donations to a Super PAC, that would also have been a violation: Super PACs are independent of candidates, and fundraising for them must stop once a potential candidate becomes an announced one. Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Martin O’Malley are two presumed presidential candidates whose Super PACs continue to raise money while they linger on the sidelines, which is precisely (some say) why they continue to linger on the sidelines.

A million here, a million there—once it might have soon begun to add up. Yet with the Koch brothers pledging to funnel close to $900 million into the 2016 election (having already amassed $250 million at an event earlier this year), notions of what constitutes “real money” might need to be reconsidered. Huckabee’s modest request could cause him some trouble, assuming there was a bipartisan body set up to monitor and enforce such things. If you said that’s what the Federal Election Commission was for, you wouldn’t be incorrect, but you’d be overstating its ability to do so, and maybe even its interest in doing so. As reported this past weekend, the FEC is effectively neutered, its three Republican and three Democratic members in a “perpetual deadlock.” The FEC chairwoman bluntly states that the likelihood of enforcing campaign finance regulations in the 2016 presidential election is “slim” – this when about $10 billion in total spending is expected, an amount loosed in large part via the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Democrats on the commission want more oversight on just where the money is coming from; Republicans say there's nothing to see here. Where members did manage to compromise was on what would be served to eat at a recent event commemorating the FEC’s fortieth anniversary: one side wanted bagels, the other doughnuts, so they settled on both.

It’s campaign season in the United Kingdom as well, where rules are somewhat more stringent: No party can spend more than about $30 million in the year ahead of the election. In the last cycle, the Conservatives spent $25 million and Labour less than half that. The Center for Responsive Politics says American presidential candidates spent about as much money on raising money in 2012 as the two main British parties spent on their entire campaigns in 2010. There is no TV or radio advertising in British elections (though spending on digital ads is rising). Even then, parties and candidates tend to have money left over. Maybe enough for scones? 

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Sustainable development is about decarbonization, not depopulation

Last week, I wrote about the major Vatican symposium on climate change and sustainable development. In that post, I wrote about the unfortunate journalistic tendency to give equal weight to the world-renowned climate scientists in the hall, and the rag-taggle bunch of climate change denialists from the Heartland Institute shaking their fists outside.

In his most recent column, John Allen does the same. He notes that the Heartland people were “pointedly not invited inside the Vatican and UN conference”. Well, of course not. I don’t think the people who believe the moon landings were faked get invited to NASA gatherings either! It’s a peculiar quirk of American journalism to give credence to what is essentially quackery in this area.

But Allen then goes one step further. He talks to an Italian activist called Cascioli – seemingly his sole source for this story – who assures him that “environmentalism and population control are intrinsically linked”.

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Progressive/liberal Catholics: what do they think?

Last Tuesday Paul Baumann posted “An unbroken tradition?”—an analysis of an article by Ross Douthat in The Atlantic.  Paul’s post drew almost a hundred comments.  Some expressed indignation that anyone claiming intellectual credibility might say anything positive about Mr. Douthat.   Others advanced to a lengthy and very substantial discussion of Catholic teaching on marriage.  All too belatedly I reintroduced one of the main points of Paul’s original post.  By that time, of course, virtually everyone had moved on.  Allow me to try again:    

Having admitted that Garry Wills is an “outlier” among progressive Catholics, Douthat nonetheless stated that what most progressives share with Wills is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.” 

Paul indicated that he shared some of Douthat’s worries “about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA."

“The problem,” he immediately added, “is determining what is essential and what isn’t.”

Now I, too, sometimes share these worries about the loss of essentials and the challenge of defining them.  But by and large I find—and I'd guess Paul does as well—that Douthat’s generalization about progressive Catholics’ almost nonchalant readiness to alter or abandon “many once-essential-seeming things” hugely exaggerated. 

Am I wrong?   And if there is not solid evidence for such a generalization, where does it come from?

Thank you, Freddie Gray

CNS photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, Reuters

Thank you, Freddie Gray.

You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.

Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.

Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.

And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.

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Monday Morning Links: May 4

Two gunmen were killed near Dallas after shooting an unarmed security officer outside an exhibit and “cartoon contest” depicting the prophet Mohammed. The Washington Post profiles Pamela Gellar, the exhibit’s organizer and self-described anti-Jihadist, who is also responsible for incendiary ad campaigns across the country.

In G.O.P. presidential candidacy news, Ben Carson will officially announce his campaign, and The Atlantic looks at his grassroots support. Carly Fiorina announced her candidacy today, and The New Republic examines her strategy as the anti-Hillary

The LA Times covered Pope Francis’s remarks on Father Junipero Serra and his canonization, which Robert Mickens also discussed in this Letter from Rome.

How does a city like Baltimore find its citizens trapped in poverty? The New York Times looks at a study which finds “geography does not merely separate rich from poor but also plays a large role in determining which poor children achieve the so-called American dream.”  

William Pfaff, R.I.P. (UPDATED)

William Pfaff, long-time contributor to and two-time editor at Commonweal, has died. He was eighty-six. The New York Times obituary will tell you the important facts of Bill's life. He wrote prodigously for over sixty years--first for Commonweal, then for publications with a wider readership: the New Yorker, the International Herald Tribune (work that was syndicated to two dozen newspapers), the New York Review of Books. He wrote his own books, eight of them, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award (Barbarian Sentiments, 1989).

Bill was unswervingly skeptical of the projection of U.S. power, and had no qualms about criticizing American interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. For this, the Times expains, he was sometimes called anti-American. But he always considered himself a patriot. “He lashed out at America because he loved it," his wife Carolyn told the Times. "But he became sadder and sadder about the nation that was so great, yet was belittling itself. He wanted America to stay home and fix its own country.”

“He rejected the messianic illusions of successive American administrations,” said a longtime friend, John Rielly, president emeritus of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Although many American pundits consider him a liberal, he was in many respects a classic Christian conservative — one who was skeptical about liberal notions of inevitable progress and always aware of the limitations of human activity.”

Giving Bill an award in 2006, the Times reports, the American Academy of Diplomacy called him the "dean" of American columnists, lauding “his moral vision of the proper uses of power and limits on its abuse.”

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Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."

 

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Trollope's Perspicacity

I have a good friend who religiously reads or re-reads a Trollope novel every summer. Sluggard that I am, I have not read one since pre-pre-Kindle college days. That may now change thanks to a splendid and nuanced essay on the English novelist by Adam Gopnik in the current New Yorker. I resonated in a particular way to this reflection:

It’s a sign of Trollope’s gift for imagining the internal politics of large, self-approving bureaucracies that every one of his Barsetshire character types can be found in any American university. Trollope’s Low Church Bishop Proudie would today be a newly appointed university president, eager for online courses and increased enrollment; the High Church party of the Arabins would be found in the humanities faculty, distraught at having to prove that esoteric comp-lit studies are in any sense “profitable.” The Reverend Dr. Stanhope, the clergyman called back from a long holiday in Italy, is a professor summoned from a sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome and ordered to start teaching freshmen again. Even the condition of Trollope’s curates, like poor Mr. Quiverful, is exactly reproduced by those long-term adjuncts who teach semester to semester and live contract to contract.

Presumably, emeriti/ae are spared, being only destined to fade away, or as a recent Commonweal piece unsentimentally put it: "fall apart."

Report on Vatican climate change symposium

This past Tuesday, I had the great joy and privilege of attending a Vatican symposium entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignity Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. Three separate groups sponsored this gathering: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/ Social Sciences, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (housed at Columbia University’s Earth Institute) and Religions for Peace. It brought together a who’s-who of top climate scientists, development experts, as well religious leaders from the world’s major traditions - Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh. There were also some business leaders present, plus two heads of state (President Mattarella of Italy and President Correa of Ecuador). And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the symposium, fresh from his bilateral meeting earlier that morning with Pope Francis.

The purpose of this unique summit was to build momentum ahead of the pope’s much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, to focus squarely on the moral dimensions of climate change and sustainable development – especially through its effect on the poor. It was remarkable and inspiring to see top scientists and top religious leaders singing from the same songbook – the religions affirmed the science, and the scientists affirmed the moral dimension of the problem. As Ban Ki-moon said in his speech, “there is no divide whatsoever between religion and science on the issue of climate change”.

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More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Hebdo & PEN, the Archbishop & the Quran

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz said this week he will stop inking images of the prophet Muhammad, explaining that it no longer interests him: “I got tired of it, just like I got tired of drawing Sarkozy.” His announcement comes as France also follows the case of Sarah K., the fifteen-year-old student sent home for wearing a long skirt her principal deemed an “ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith – an action the Collective Against Islamophobia in France called “really an excessive interpretation” of the 2004 law prohibiting students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school.

Meanwhile, the public spat among authors continues ahead of next week’s PEN gala in New York, where Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award “for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.” Six writers scheduled as table hosts announced over the weekend they would not attend the event, including Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center. About two dozen more writers (including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz) have since added their names as signatories to a public letter of protest over the award: “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression,” reads the letter, “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.” Prose and the five others who first withdrew have come under fire from, among others, Salman Rushdie -- who has called them “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (He used some other choice words too.) To which Prose has responded:

Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? … [We] stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence. … But the giving of an award suggests that one admires and respects the value of the work being honored, responses quite difficult to summon for the work of Charlie Hebdo. Provocation is simply not the same as heroism.

There’s a more irenic exchange going on at John Carroll University, as can be heard in a segment from today’s NPR Morning Edition on retired archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam currently teaching a class on the Quran.

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National Poetry Month: Danielle Chapman

Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."

These lines, with their intricate linking of sound (bubbles/unburdening/bearing/bliss/broke), indicate another kind of intensity that Chapman is sensitive to--musical intensity, the way that language, in its play of sounds, can bear meaning beyond the merely semantic. Here is the opening to "Rituxan Spring," which echoes the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "As kingfishers catch fire": "As derricks draw ink / from parched plains / we've struck / Time, silky and game / as a stick streaming / snake roe."

This isn't the only time I heard Hopkins haunting the background of Delinquent Palaces. Like Hopkins, Chapman is a poet of religious intensity. Her poems engage with suffering head-on, looking to God not as a way to forget about loss but as a way to think through and with it. Here is the concluding stanza to "In Order":

Now that that grief's gone and others come

I come back again to understand

the first one, plum blossoms brushing

the attic window as I look out upon

a yard that has been left untended

by any hand but that of God.

And here she is in "Believer," which begins with the declaration that the speaker "hadn't wanted to believe myself / numbered among the unlucky ones" and ends with this description of the beautiful and haunting complexity of suffering :

In fact it seemed a blessing or a talent

sometimes, or its own kind of deeper luck,

the way I walked into each suffering

which was its own intricate world complete

with wild children wrangling to be king

of every broken square of concrete

and market stalls of shrimp kept cool on ice

whose infinitesimal limbs caught light

as if hauled glittering into genesis.

Finally, Chapman's poems return, again and again, to one of the primary intensities of lyric poetry: the intensity of love. We hear that "To love you is to love the grackles screaming / in Starbucks/ single tree"; to love you is "to build a teensy fortress of Dante's hell / within the real one, to read / while the underworld takes Texas back again." We hear of Chapman's love for her twin daughters: "You / murmur rapture / Life out of nothingness / Mother of beauties / you come through me / Unto us / Twice."

"Expressway Song" begins like this:

The expressway encircled me

and this was why I'd come: to love, 

believing in a love like work,

knowing the true work is waking

to pierce each morning with intent

and evening with irreverence

until the city surrenders,

lifts its iron, and lets one in

with the grace of a raising bridge.

And it ends like this: "a voice fell through me like cold chrome-- / we come to love what turns to stone." For Chapman, love is a matter of piercing, irreverant enchantments and chastening tragedies, a symbol of grace and an inevitable source of pain.

The poems in Delinquent Palaces show this again and again, and they suggest what poetry offers its readers, not just in National Poetry Month but the whole year-round: a reminder that, if we look, we will see a world bathed in beauty and terror, "the fire hydrants redder / than berries of blood on islands of thorn." 

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the homepage.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.