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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.

"Come down from the cross"

In December, I wrote a post here at dotCommonweal about how Pope Francis's leadership is having an impact on the bishops of Spain. The sex abuse scandal in Granada is one of the instances in which Pope Francis's personal initiative has made a difference. The story continues today with an update in the New York Times.

As you may recall, one of the remarkable features of the case was that the Pope himself contacted the victim, identified at the time only by the name of "Daniel," and followed up with him.

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Don't Call Us Libertarians!

"A Trap Set for Conservative Catholics" is the ominous title of a piece by Austin Ruse at Crisis Magazine. The gravamen of Ruse's complaint is that people like me and Commonweal contributor David Gibson are defaming conservative Catholics by conflating their support for a "robust market economy" with libertarianism. As evidence for this claim, Ruse cites some of the presentations at a conference titled "The Catholic Case Against Libertarians," which took place last June in Washington, D.C.

Ruse suggests that participants in the conference mostly avoided naming names because they knew that the real objects of their ideological scorn are not actually libertarians. On that particular count, Ruse at least credits me for candor:

I do not want to suggest that any of the speakers were cagey but as I recall only one of them even mentioned the name of a group that is suspect. Matthew Boudway of Commonweal drew a bright line right at the real target if the conference. The line began with libertarianism and went straight to political conservatives and to free marketeers. “Most Catholic defenders of laissez-fair ideology describe themselves as conservative.” But even they know such an ideology is really the "great disrupter, its gales of creative destruction sweeping away traditions, institutions, and communities that stand in its way.” Where no others did, Boudway had the courage to name names. He named the Acton Institute[....]

Boudway also said, “Show me a country that has surrendered its politics to the dictates of the market, and I will show you a culture where personal attachments of every kind are less secure than they once were and where the poor and every other vulnerable population are at most an afterthought.” To that I would say, yes please, show me that country.

I'll show him two: Thatcher's Great Britain and Pinochet's Chile. In both countries poverty and unemployment shot up as public spending was slashed, public assets were privatized, and markets were deregulated. According to the Guardian: "In 1979, 13.4% of the [British] population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%, or 12.2m people, with huge rises in the mid-1980s." The numbers were far worse in Pinochet's Chile, where Milton Friedman's "Chicago Boys" were given complete control of economic policy. If Ruse wants more examples, I'd be happy to provide them.

Ruse doesn't quote much from the other conference presentations he refers to. Nor does he link to them, though they're available online. Maybe he and the editors of Crisis couldn't be bothered. Maybe they have a policy against sending web traffic to people they regard as heretics. Or maybe Ruse was afraid his readers might notice that his highly rhetorical descriptions of the conference presentations bear only a faint resemblance to the presentations themselves. For example, a link to the video would have made it a little easier for the fair-minded viewer to discover that Ruse's description of John DiIulio's talk—"it could have been an Obama campaign commercial"—is a brazen mischaracterization. Unless, that is, one regards any criticism of Republican economic policy by someone who once worked in the George W. Bush administration as a tacit endorsement of all things Obama.

Although Ruse thinks the conference's speakers were mainly inveighing against straw men, he does not deny that there are Catholics who are comfortable calling themselves libertarians. He is willing to excuse them because of their ignorance:

Now, many people these days do call themselves libertarian. But libertarianism is a bit like socialism in that many people who claim it probably don’t know what it means. Many are merely small government conservatives who may believe they are libertarians without understanding all that it means.

Does the Acton Institute, which Ruse defends, not know what libertarianism means? Acton has published the work of Tom Woods, contributor to the Journal of Libertarian Studies and author of such books as Real Dissent: A Libertarian Sets Fire to the Index Card of Allowable Opinion. Crisis itself has published several articles by Woods over the years. Does Ruse think that Woods doesn't understand what libertarianism means? I note that the former editor of Crisis, Brian Saint-Paul (an old friend of mine and a former colleague) now identifies himself on his Twitter account as  "a libertarian writer/editor." Does Ruse imagine that Saint-Paul became sympathetic to libertarianism only after he left Crisis, or that he, too, doesn't really know what libertarianism is? If so, Ruse is mistaken.

But it really isn't worth running up a tally of all the influential Catholic scholars, journalists, and think-tankers who are willing to call themselves libertarians. They're out there in broad daylight for anyone who cares to look for them. Catholic libertarianism may or may not be a heresy, but it's certainly not a conspiracy.

All this may strike some as little more than a question of semantics—perhaps Ruse just has a peculiarly narrow definition of "libertarian." The truth is, the conference in D.C. could just as well have been titled "The Catholic Case Against Laissez-Faire Capitalism" or even "The Catholic Case Against Neoliberalism." There are those who believe that markets are essentially self-correcting, that the state should not concern itself with distributive justice, and that worries about inequality are reducible to envy. But Pope Francis isn't among them, and neither were his predecessors.

Having dispatched all the trap-setters at the conference, Ruse moves on to the controvery over Charles Koch's $500,000 donation to the business school of Catholic University of America. He complains that Gibson's article about this controversy originally identified Andrew Abela, the founding dean of the business school, as a libertarian. Abela doesn't accept that designation and so Gibson and his editors at Religion News Service removed it. Fair enough. But how much, I wonder, does Abela's understanding of the proper relationship between the state and the economy differ from Tom Woods's understanding? Both have been given the Acton Institute's stamp of approval. I could be wrong, but from where I stand, they look like fellow travelers. I say libertarian, you say proponent of a robust free market. Let's cash that Koch check before people start asking too many questions.

Toward the end of his piece, Ruse claims that real libertarians are wrong because of their positions on such things as abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography. He wishes that Catholic Democrats would cooperate with conservative Catholics in their common struggle against these things instead of accusing conservatives of being libertarians: "There is, in fact, great common cause that could be made by Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans including on the question of libertarianism," he writes. This would seem to be a gracious invitation, except that Ruse has so often written as if Catholics who vote Democratic must be soft on things like abortion and pornography—the same (and only?) issues he thinks libertarians get wrong. But maybe he's changed his mind about Catholic Democrats. I hope so, just as I hope that one day he will figure out that free-market dogma is at odds with some of the causes closest to his heart.

Dylan Does It His Way

How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.

Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.

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Proof of Prejudice and the NC Shooting

In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive,” read yesterday’s front page of the New York Times. NPR asks, “Hate Crime or Parking Dispute?” This strikes me as a strange line of questioning. Why the rush to distinguish between a parking dispute and religiously motivated hatred? 

Since “hate crime” is a legal term, and prosecuting under hate crime legislation requires a particular burden of proof, quoting the family as saying, “this was a hate crime” (which they have repeated) rather than naming it as such is understandable within journalistic constraints. But whether the crime qualifies as a hate crime in a court of law, and whether we can talk about prejudice as a factor outside the courtroom are different things. Anger over an everyday event and having religious or racial prejudices are clearly not mutually exclusive attitudes, and prejudice is not a clear strain of thought easily plucked out from other kinds of thoughts. This is true whether we are describing ourselves, or another person. That feelings, fears, and motivations are often subconscious or partially conscious is partly why social prejudice is so pernicious. It is still necessary and useful to name prejudice when it’s there, but we cannot so easily claim for ourselves, or for others, when it’s not. Of course, not being able to confirm absence doesn’t confirm presence; criticism of hate crime legislation is often about that very difficulty.

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David Carr

I never met David Carr. But whenever I saw his name on a byline, I made sure to read his column. It was always insightful, incisive, and challenging. Only yesterday I read his reflections on Brian Williams and Jon Stewart. So it was with incredulity that I heard on the news this morning that he had died last night after collapsing in the Times newsroom.

David's colleague, A.O. Scott has this moving appreciation on the Times' website:

David’s public contribution to the profession — his columns and feature stories, his interviews and investigations — is part of the record, and part of the glory of this newspaper. He covered every corner of the media business (including, sometimes, his own employer) with analytical acumen, ethical rigor and gumshoe tenacity.

He managed to see the complexities of digital-age journalism from every angle, and to write about it with unparalleled clarity and wit. His prose was a marvel of wry Midwestern plainness, sprinkled with phrases his colleagues will only ever think of as Carrisms. Something essential was “baked in.” Someone was always competing to be the tallest leprechaun.

That was how David would say he felt when he was singled out for praise. Not that he was modest. He knew his gifts, and was competitive in the way that many of us are — eager for the scoop, the juicy assignment, the front page or the front of the section. But no one was more generous in praise of his colleagues, or happier in their success.

Prayers and condolences to David's family and to his brother John who was active in the founding of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

Elsewhere

Want to know what's at stake in the showdown between the new Greek government and the E.U.? Watch Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's new finance minister, explain it to a couple of German journalists:

 

Here's Perry Anderson explaining the larger crisis Europe is facing—and the new political possibilities the crisis may lead to.

What next?

Jon Stewart is going to run for president. Upon winning, he will appoint Brian Williams secretary of defense.

A funny thing happened on the way to canonizing Romero.

Lots of interesting things were said during the Vatican press conference announcing the long-delayed beatification of Oscar Romero, which will take place before the end of the year. Romero was a "martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council," said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of Romero's cause for sainthood. He was murdered because he "followed the evangelical experience, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, of Medellin [and] had chosen to live with the poor to defend them from oppression," Paglia continued.

So why has it taken decades to move Romero's canonization process forward? "Misunderstandings and preconceptions," according to Paglia. While Romero was archbishop of San Salvador, Paglia explained, "kilos of letters against him arrived in Rome. The accusations were simple: He's political; he's a follower of liberation theology." Romero freely admitted it, Paglia said, but clarified: "There are two theologies of liberation: one sees liberation only as material liberation; the other is that of Paul VI. I'm with Paul VI."

That never convinced Romero's "enemies" at the Vatican--including conservative Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who died in 2008. For most of his career, Trujillo's bête noire had been liberation theology, which he identified with Marxism. Fearing that naming Romero a saint would signal the church's approval of a politics that was incompatible with Catholicism, Trujillo led the Latin American bishops who worked to stifle Romero's canonization case under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For years many assumed that both pontiffs shared Trujillo's view of Romero. But at the press conference Pagila said that the one who first "unblocked" Romero's cause was not Francis but Benedict--a confusing claim, because in April 2013, Paglia announced that Francis had unblocked the cause. So which was it? Did Benedict--the man who had warned against some forms of liberation theology--put the process back on track or did Francis? The answer, it turns out, may be both.

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The Never-Receding Past

Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”

My colleague Kaitlin Campbell recently wrote on the topic of Facebook from the perspective of those introduced to it as teenagers. Those whose adulthoods compelled adoption – whether for social, recreational, or, in my case, occupational reasons – have probably experienced it differently. Back when I first had to set up an account for my job, plans for my twenty-fifth high school reunion were underway, unknown to me. But not for long: Within hours I was discovered by people I hadn’t been in touch with for decades asking if I'd be in attendance.

Reunions figure in Updike's work from the outset to the end, with "The Happiest I've Been" (1959) among the first to "The Walk With Elizanne" -- sexagenarian characters gather for a fiftieth high school reunion with few hatchets to bury or scars to heal but still holding a stubborn candle or two -- among the last, appearing in 2003 (life goes on…). I was much younger than Updike’s alumni. But I wondered whether my reunion – graduates of a regional high school in semi-rural western New Jersey that in (perhaps embroidered) memory shared similarities with Updike’s evocations of midcentury, small-town America – would be marked by similarly softened attitudes. After some indecisiveness, I went. Seven years later, it can feel like I never came back.

Facebook has kept in the here and now the past I assumed would return to its proper, designated place. The charitable view has it that being linked to people from all parts of your life creates the desirable illusion of having never left your idyllic hometown, even if it never existed -- a place where everyone knows everyone and the whole community comes out to celebrate a birthday or wedding or job promotion. That might appeal to some. I’d always anticipated leaving such a place, looking forward to wondering whatever became of a classmate with the assurance that no answer would be forthcoming. I could hold on to selected images from the actual past, but I could also conjure my own unfolding versions of unknown lives or allow mutable, perishable memory to do its thing. My choice, because a place and past left behind were supposed to stay there. It was part of growing up and getting older, then older still. Stories end: Part of what always made anecdotes from aging relatives enjoyable was the mystery that came in not knowing what actually came after.

This isn't happening. An infrequent Facebook user, I'm nonetheless current on the marital situations, career trajectories, workout regimens, familial relations, and hospitalizations of numerous former classmates I didn't know all that well in the first place. The gym-class bully posts photos of sunsets and spiked marlins and sometimes of himself, now with a kind smile and a pretty nice boat from the looks of it. The quiet girl from history class happily and regularly reports on milestones in her children’s lives. Some seem to have gotten religion, old-time and otherwise, with others carrying on elaborate and at times esoteric conversations about Obama, security software, or rare musical instruments. There are also those who upload photos of their homes and yards and cars or the homes and property and cars they’re thinking of buying, of the fun they're having here and abroad. Laying across it all is that quality of "unvaried thickness," with little sign of the narrative coming to a stop.

Could it be read as a sign of optimism, or of something else? Of course, what people share is the result of more-or-less considered thought: As Wood says about realistic fiction, "a certain level of well-selected detail [is needed to keep] the balloon of verisimilitude afloat.” How real the stories on display really are can be debated. Yet the stories continue, with details sufficient to ensure that, unlike Updike's protagonist nobly struggling to name the unrecognizable classmate brought before him, the pleasure and the occasional necessity of not knowing cannot be felt.

Who Speaks for the Jews?

Here is a vigorous rejoinder from the Jewish Daily Forward to PM Netanyahu's claim to speak for Jews everywhere. Well argued too.

'What Spam is to a pig'

Now up on our homepage is Andrew J. Bacevich's commentary on the Obama administration's 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS), which was delivered to Congress on February 6. Bacevich isn't impressed:

Can there be a more thankless task than assembling such texts? Paying homage to clichés ancient and contemporary; nodding to every constituency, large or small, lest anyone feel slighted; claiming to know history’s very purposes, while taking care to package such claims in bland (and therefore incontrovertible) generalities; inserting anticipatory rebuttals to the inevitable sniping of partisan critics: These number among the essential elements. Satisfying them necessarily results in a product that is to expository prose what Spam is to a pig: highly processed and short on nutrition.

Bacevich digs through the Spam to uncover the document's underlying logic, which is as evident in its omissions as in its "highly processed" rhetoric. He is especially hard on the NSS's flourishes of self-congratulation:

As measured by “might, technology, and geostrategic reach,” U.S. military forces are “unrivaled in human history.” More accurately: While the United States undoubtedly possesses enormous military power, it has yet to figure out how to translate armed might into politically purposeful outcomes achieved at reasonable cost. Time and again, vast expenditures of lives, treasure, and political capital yield results other than those intended.

The United States is “embracing constraints on our use of new technologies like drones.” A bit of a stretch, that. More accurately: Through its shadowy campaign of targeted assassination, the Obama administration is erasing long-established conceptions of sovereignty while removing constraints on the use of force. Something of a novelty when inaugurated by George W. Bush, drone strikes have now become routine—about as newsworthy as traffic accidents. In effect, Washington claims the prerogative of converting lesser countries like Yemen or Somalia into free-fire zones. What these precedent-setting actions imply for the future is anybody’s guess. One thing seems likely: As drones proliferate with astonishing speed, others are likely to avail themselves of the same prerogative.

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At Large

Yesterday, the latest issue of Commonweal arrived at my door, and it startled me to realize that I hadn’t seen the cover before that moment. I was getting my first look at it like any other subscriber would. It was a reminder that I am now, officially and wistfully, an editor “at large.”

I’ve been working part-time in the Commonweal offices since my first child was born in 2011, and thriving on the balance of work and family I’m lucky enough to have carved out for myself thanks to a flexible employer and an extremely supportive husband (not to mention invaluable help from my in-laws and some other dedicated babysitters and friends). But—Pope Francis’s remarks about Catholics’ obligations vis-à-vis rabbits having come too late to be any help to me—I am due in a few weeks to give birth to my third child, and with three kids under four I have to admit I’ve met my match, at least for the short term.

So, I am now officially an associate editor “at large,” maintaining a foothold at the magazine I love while focusing on the family that, for now, demands the greater part of my attention and energy (and that, yes, I also love). I like the “at large” title because it makes my status sound exotic and mysterious. It suggests that I am hard to track down, when in fact on any given day I am almost certainly at home—especially these snowy, icy, late-third-trimester days—and that I am pursuing any number of exciting projects, when in reality I am most likely doing laundry. 

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The 16th Annotation

In his by now notorious Christmas "spanking" of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis proposed for a salutary examination of conscience fifteen "diseases or temptations" to which members of the Curia are prey.

Perhaps not sufficiently noticed was the Pope's use of words like "our" and "us," as when he says:

They are the more common diseases in our life in the Curia. They are diseases and temptations which weaken our service to the Lord. I think a “listing” of these diseases – along the lines of the Desert Fathers who used to draw up such lists – will help us to prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be a good step for all of us to take in preparing for Christmas.

And, of course, as he states, the immediate goal of the spiritual exercise was preparation for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation -- a sacrament particularly dear to Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Soon after the Pope's trip to the woodshed, a wag commented that Francis had omitted a sixteenth temptation: that of thinking the first fifteen only appllied to someone else.

But the Pope had himself supplied this 16th annotation when he said:

Brothers, these diseases and these temptations are naturally a danger for each Christian and for every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesial movement; and they can strike at the individual and the community levels.

Recently I've been re-reading the Pope's weekly audiences/catecheses. I'm struck by how often they contain, albeit in a kinder and gentler rhetorical mode, an examination of conscience. Here is a representative sample:

In the time of Paul, the community of Corinth found great difficulty in this sense, living, as we, too, often do, the experience of division, of envy, of misunderstanding and of exclusion. All of these things are not good because, instead of building up the Church and causing her to grow as the Body of Christ, they shatter it into many pieces, they dismember it. And this happens in our time as well. Let us consider, in Christian communities, in some parishes, let us think of how much division, how much envy, how they criticize, how much misunderstanding and exclusion there is in our neighbourhoods. And what does this lead to? It dismembers us among ourselves. It is the beginning of war. War does not begin on the battlefield: war, wars begin in the heart, with misunderstanding, division, envy, with this struggle with others.

Advent is long past, but Lent approaches. And the Desert Fathers and Mothers are always in season.

 

 

What's new on the website

Posted today, the February 20 interreligious issue. Anchoring it is George Hunsinger’s “What Christians Owe the Jews: A Case for Soft Supersessionism.” An excerpt:

Christianity enters into profound self-contradiction whenever it is anti-Judaic; indeed, that when Christianity does not love the Jews, it corrupts its love of Jesus Christ at the very core. In this view, loving Christ is inseparable from loving the Jews—and where the Jews are not loved, Christ himself is dishonored. What I would like to advocate is a form of philo-Semitism or Judaeophilia rooted in Christ.

Anyone proposing such an idea faces a problem—namely, that this same christocentrism requires a form of supersessionism, which traditionally held that in refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Jews have forfeited their covenantal status as the chosen people of God…. An almost universal conviction in contemporary theology holds that supersessionism is an inevitable cause of anti-Judaism and its repellent cousin anti-Semitism, and thus that any form of supersessionism is unacceptable. And yet in my opinion the inner logic of the Christian faith necessitates supersessionism in some form. The form I will advocate is the one that David Novak, in his 2004 essay “The Covenant in Rabbinic Thought,” called “soft supersessionism.”

This approach asserts that the new covenant does not replace the old covenant, but rather fulfills, extends, supplements, and fundamentally confirms it. There is only one covenant, and thus only one people of God, and yet there are also two faiths. The presence of two faiths—in some ways diametrically opposed—represents a festering wound in the one people of God. Neither Christians nor Jews know how to heal this wound; only God does. Certainly the day is long since past when Christians might hope to heal this wound by adopting St. Paul’s strategy of “making Israel jealous.” Today any such strategy smolders in the ruins of the Shoah—for which Christian history supplied the dreadful background, if not the direct cause.

Read the whole thing here. Also featured in the February 20 issue: Julia Young on Latino Pentecostals, Tzvi Novick on Jewish universalism, and Jo McGowan on how languages reflect and reinforce social biases. See the full table of contents here. And also make sure to read the latest from E. J. Dionne Jr., who on writing about Barack Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast comments on the Crusades asks: Is a president allowed to have complicated views on religion?