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Discussing the encyclical

"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity."  Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare.   They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. 

The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons.  Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy.  Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy.  And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting. 

So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document. 

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Why Climate Change is Not a Prudential Judgment

A recent survey indicated that Americans divide into three groups on the issue of climate change: believers, sympathizers, and skeptics. About half of Americans are “believers,” saying that the climate is warming and that this warming is caused by human activity, and another quarter are “sympathizers” who are less sure about causes, but who agree the climate in warming. The final quarter are “skeptics,” who deny that there really is any warming.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

Francis’s encyclical has already brought charges from prominent Catholics that the Church should stay out of the science. It is important to recognize that the encyclical itself will surely be primarily concerned with faith and morals. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences has already issued a detailed statement which goes into far more detail on the science.

When the encyclical drops, we will hear plenty of commentary on prudential judgment; it is important to clarify what this term means. It is not properly applied to scientific knowledge of the sort that show climate change. Scientific knowledge cannot by definition be a matter of prudential judgment, since it is about “what is” and not about “what is to be done.”

Aquinas clearly states prudence, while an “intellectual virtue,” is nevertheless to be distinguished from “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding” which are about “necessary things.” By contrast, “art” and “prudence” are about “contingent things.” Art is about “things made” and prudence about “things done” (ST II-II, 47, 5). Prudence cannot be exercised without “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding,” but these latter qualities are not themselves prudence.

Thus, the proper area for debate about prudential judgment is what is to be done in the face of scientific data, not what the scientific data is. This differentiation will be especially important, because I expect the encyclical will follow the PAS statement in suggesting that overwhelming evidence suggests present climate change and future disruptions, while also noting that (to directly quote the PAS report) “The climate system is highly complex and could respond in surprising ways that have not yet been anticipated by models that project the future climate. While the actual warming could be smaller than expected, it could also be much larger, causing even more dire disruptions than those that have been identified. Prudence and justice demand that we take note of these risks and act upon them in time, for the sake of all humanity, but especially for the weak, the vulnerable, and the future generations whose wellbeing depends on our generation’s actions.”

These sorts of quotes will offer a tempting opportunity for climate “skeptics” to proof-text the document in favor of uncertainty – and in doing so, likely appeal to “prudential judgment.” But the quote very correctly indicates that the uncertainty of the science actually heightens the urgency of acting. A prudent person, faced with a large amount of information which tends one way but includes inevitable uncertainty, will not guide her future actions by placing all of her bets on the shakiest portions of the evidence and the potential-but-unknown “surprises” that might lead to less damage than seems likely. This is the very definition of imprudence. But notice this isn’t a judgment about the scientific data itself; it’s a judgment about what the scientific data would support as prudent action.

The recently-debated question of appropriate Catholic cooperation with the United Nations is a clear instance of a prudential judgment. To my mind, given that global cooperation is necessary for any reasonable action, it would seem imprudent not to cooperate with the one body that might make progress possible. One would need very weighty reasons to reject such cooperation, as well as a serious argument that such cooperation involved formal or proximate material cooperation. Nevertheless, the pope’s encyclical will reasonably prompt such a debate, even as it undoubtedly makes important prudential judgments explicit. That is the debate which should proceed from the encyclical, because it is a debate that has already advanced to the question, “what should we do about climate change?” Because the question of whether there is human-caused climate change isn’t about prudential reasoning at all. Rather, the knowledge and wisdom that we have – even with the inevitable uncertainty – leads to clarity that the least prudent course of acting is doing nothing.    

Kalief Browder's Stolen Life

As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two. 

Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.

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Mailer, Buckley & My Alma Mater

I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.

Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.

When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.

Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.

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Twin Cities archdiocese charged with child endangerment.

On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”

In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”

In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.

The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”

The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”

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"Call Me Caitlyn"

Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” in the pages of Vanity Fair this week caused a stir, well, pretty much everywhere.  Much of the commentary I saw was positive.  There were some on the left, particularly feminists, who raised questions about Jenner’s decision to embrace a highly sexualized image of femininity.  Some religious conservatives expressed sympathy to Jenner personally but joined most of their colleagues in criticizing her decision to live as a woman and undergo gender reassignment surgery.

I’m increasingly of the belief that the state of Catholic teaching on these issues is more unsettled than at first it might appear.  It’s true that a few bishops--including Pope Francis--have offered negative appraisals of “gender theory,” which is popular in transgender circles.  But this is a very new issue and I’m not sure one can appear to a clear and consistent teaching on the matter that has been universally held for a long period of time.  The Catechism is pretty much silent on the matter.

The question as I see it is whether a person with a gender identity that is at variance with their chromosomal/physical gender necessarily violates the moral law if they choose to live according to their gender identity and (although this is a separate question) ultimately undergo gender reassignment surgery.

The argument that is usually offered against the idea that these actions could be morally licit is some version of the “divine will” argument.  In this case, the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.

I think this argument quickly runs into some problems. There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance.  Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal.  I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it. 

The rejoinder, of course, is that a normal chromosomal gender (i.e. XX or XY), in and of itself, is not a “disease” that needs to be treated.  My response would be that the disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.

If we see transgenderism as a brain disorder (and, as I will note later, no means all or even most transgender activists would accept this) the question is how to treat it.  Many religious conservatives seem to assume the only morally licit answer is, through some form of therapy, to change the brain (b.t.w., even “talk therapy” does this). But the brain is an organ too.  Either way, you are changing the physical operation or structure of the human body.  I’m not clear why a person is morally obligated to choose one form of treatment over another given that there are risks and side effects associated with both.

Ultimately, the concern of religious conservatives with transgender individuals who choose to transition seems to be a fear that this is merely another triumph for expressive individualism and a rejection of the idea that gender, per Genesis 5:2,  is actually encoded in the fabric of creation.

I’m not certain that this need always be the case.  Indeed, the actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct.  They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success.  Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery.  It was not a decision motivated by ideology.

To be fair, there are a large number of transgender activists who embrace a more fluid concept of gender under the rubric of “gender theory” that may be at variance with Catholic teaching. Ironically, such a position may undermine some of their public policy goals, such as obtaining health insurance coverage for hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery.  If transgenderism is a medical condition that requires treatment, then coverage would seem appropriate.  But if one is seeking a surgical procedure merely to outwardly express a subjectively chosen identity, the case for coverage is much weaker.  Most health insurance plans do not cover cosmetic surgery.

In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation.  Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation.  Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.

Binge-Watching: What is it? Why do it?

I finished three big projects recently, and my brain is, well, fried. So, since I can't go on a nature vacation just now (and, anyway,  my idea of a nature vacation includes a nice lodge with a spa) I am turning to television to let my brain rest. Sorry, Joseph Pieper. I accepted the gracious invitation--enticement--of NBC to binge watch Aquarius, staring David Duchovny. This may be a modified binge watch--I go through two or three of the thirteen eipsodes a night. But it is strangely enjoyable.

The question is, why?  Is binge watching really like binge eating; is hitting "play" on episode after episode really like putting potato chip after potato chip in your mouth, without being really hungry? Is it gluttony of a sort? Or is it something else? 

I started binge watching (although they didn't call it that) about six years ago when I was still in South Bend. I fell down the stairs, broke my ankle and needed surgery, and lots of rehab. So I spent about four weeks on the couch with my foot above my heart. It's hard to work in that position. It's hard to read too; and the painkillers made it hard for me to focus. So, I turned on the tv--and found a USA marathon of NCIS--and got hooked despite myself.  So hooked that after a couple of weeks I went out and bought all seven seasons on dvd (remember them?) to avoid the pesky commercials. 

I was escaping into a world that wasn't bounded by my couch and my own physical limitations, and the pervasiveness of that world--episode after episode--helped me  forget about what I couldn't do anything about anyway.  Now, watching Aquarius isn't the same thing--my ankle is mended, thank God.  But it is a good way to push the narrow focused attention which is necessary (at least for me) to finish a big reading and writing project out of my brain.  And make room for something new.  

Does anyone else binge watch? What and why?

Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment coming June 18.

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis's much-anticipated, chewed-over, complained-about, prebuttaled encyclical on the enivornment (reportedly titled "God is for the Carbon Tax," or something) will be published on Thursday, June 18. Sorry, one-time senator/perennial presidential canididate Rick "Leave Science to the Scientists" Santorum. Francis has more science degrees than you do. And more scientists at his disposal.

Start your engines.

The First of 50 days in Asia

I am on a journey. I arrived here at Wah Yan College last night after a 16 hour fairly smooth flight from Chicago, flying over the Artic. I got here with George Greiner from JST and we are accompanying Lucas's brother and sister as they return home here with their brother's ashes for a burial on June 8th, the day after Lucas' 47th birthday.

This morning Hong Kong was teeming with life. At around 6.45 am I walked around my neighborhood and found groups of older Hong Kong men and women exercising, all in different parks and school grounds, jogging, stretching, playing basketball (I saw four men in their sixties shooting hoops!), but most were doing Tai Chi.  I walked around one small stadium several times, taking pictures of a group of 50-75 year old Hong Kongers, about 60 of them being coached by a colleague wearing a head set.  After a half hour they each went to the fence to pick up their, yes, swords, metal and wooden ones, and resumed their Tai Chi.  Others were watching me, the only white man there, smiling and coaxing me to join them.  "Maybe tomorrow," I replied. They laughed.

About an hour later, I went back toward where I am staying at Wah Yan College, a Jesuit High School that is at the crossroads of Nathan and Waterloo Streets in Kowloon.  The Lutherans and Methodists are right next store.  At this point the next group of people populating the street were hundreds of children in uniform going to school, all remarkably well mannered and well dressed.  

Wah Yan was founded in 1924.  It's a very fine school (there's a sister school of the same name on Hong Kong Island).  The Jesuit vision statement for the two schools reads: "We offer a holistic, liberating and transforming Catholic education within a learning community for students and staff to become progressively competent, committed, compassionate, spiritual, and ethically discerning persons with a universal heart contributing to the welfare and happiness of all, in particular the poor and the neglected."

Walking around this sensational city this morning I thought of Dr. Johnson's remark that when a man is tired of London, he's tired of life.  I can't imagine what Johnson would have said were he here this morning in Hong Kong.  I can only hope that his insight would have been more emphatic as he watched the old and the young greet a new day in this glorious city.

Margaret Archer speaks out

Catholics who oppose the pending papal encyclical on the environment, and the sustainable development agenda more generally, understand that simply resorting to junk science is not going to cut it. So they also resort to the oldest trick in the book: raising the specter of abortion to mask their determined opposition to core aspects of Catholic social teaching. They seek a “gotcha” moment – if some of the people who lead sustainable development efforts either support abortion or have made ambiguous statements about it in the past, then we should shun them. And of course, jettison the whole sustainable development agenda with it.

But this is smoke and mirrors. As I’ve noted before, the real issue is decarbonization, not depopulation.  Yet this tactic is worked so many times before. But not this time. This time, they messed with the wrong woman – Margaret Archer, world-renowned social theorist and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In the context of an all-too-typical hit piece from First Things, she issued a defiant response. She asks a sequence of questions, starting with this one:

Is your sole concern with human dignity confined to the period between conception and live-birth? If so, this is a travesty of Catholic Social Teaching, whose concern is not confined to the newborn but extends to the development of all those potentialities and powers that exist only in potentia at birth (such as walking and talking) that develop or can be irreparably damaged throughout life.”

Precisely. She goes on to talk about all the good work the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences has been doing on human trafficking and modern forms of slavery, and how they completely ignore that. She mocks them for being “climate change deniers” and for their flirtation with junk science. She points out that climate change affects the life and dignity of the poorest, making it a pressing concern for pro-lifers. She mocks them for singling out Ban Ki Moon, noting that the pope had a private audience with him. She asks:

“Do you really have a higher moral standard than the Pope? Or is your own minimalistic version of the Creed, consisting of the single item: ‘’We believe in the ethical depravity of abortion’ considered to be an improvement?”

And then there’s the real kicker:

“I am appointed by the Pope and responsible directly to him. I’m afraid that leaves you and your cohort out in the cold. Moreover, we work pro bono and are therefore are self-supporting, which makes me wonder which lobbyists meet your salary bill?”

Bravo! It’s time for all Catholics – for all people of good will – to speak out as strongly as Margaret Archer on these issues, and reclaim Catholic Social Teaching from those who have spent decades hijacking it. And let’s start with EWTN, where Raymond Arroyo has unleashed a campaign to undermine the encyclical (even before it is written), even giving a platform to the junk scientists in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. When Arroyo shamefully defended torture during the Bush years, very few spoke out against him. May this time be different. 

Cardinal Pell's response to victims "almost sociopathic," says member of pope's sexual-abuse commission.

During the May 31 broadcast of Australia’s 60 Minutes, a member of Pope Francis’s sexual-abuse commission described Cardinal George Pell’s treatment of victims as “almost sociopathic.” The 60 Minutes segment focused on Pell’s response to abuse allegations while he ministered in Australia, including testimony alleging that the cardinal tried to buy a victim’s silence, and that he was involved in the decision to move the nation’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes—claims the cardinal denies. Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, was criticized for appearing with Ridsdale at his first trial in 1993 (Ridsdale was eventually convicted of more than one hundred counts of assault). The cardinal has a “catalogue of denials…a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” according to Peter Saunders, selected by Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders explained that he based his judgments on conversations with Australian victims. The cardinal’s position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—the office created by Francis to oversee the Vatican’s finances—is “untenable,” Saunders said. “I would go as far to say,” he continued, “that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”

Responses from Pell and from the Vatican spokesman came quickly. Before the program had even aired (after the network released promotional material), Pell issued statements calling Saunders’s comments “false” and “outrageous”—and suggested he might take legal action. (Saunders defended his remarks on June 1, saying they were “not slanderous.”)  While acknowledging “the important work Mr. Saunders has done as a survivor of abuse to assist victims, including the establishment of a victims survivors group in the United Kingdom,” the cardinal suggested that Saunders had overstepped his role as a member of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. The statutes of that body “make it clear that the Commission's role does not include commenting on individual cases,” according to Pell, “nor does the commission have the capacity to investigate individual cases.”

Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, made the same point in his June 1 statement. But he went further, stating that Pell’s responses to the Australian government’s investigation of child abuse have “always” been careful and thorough. The cardinal’s recent statements about 60 Minutes “must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention,” according to Lombardi. No doubt the cardinal’s statements about his role in the scandal deserve both respect and attention, but have they always been reliable? An episode from the recent past suggests not.

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New issue, new stories

Featured right now on the website, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., as well as our June 12 issue, just posted today.

In writing on the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, E.J. discusses "The Two Santa Claus Theory" put forth by supply-siders in the 1970s and says that Sanders may be tapping into something:

The senator from Vermont has little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: Government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans...

Read all of "The New St. Nick" here.

And, among the highlights from our new issue is Robert Gascoigne writing on the affinities between Christians and the "secularists" who "share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life."

[The] significant commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights.

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

And, Rand Richards Cooper pens a Last Word on the troubling ubiquity of smartphones and the baffling "universal desire to be connected everywhere and all the time":

[T]hat’s America these days: people everywhere with their heads bent, fingertips flicking at their screens. Couples in restaurants, silently flicking. A schoolbus full of teenagers, heads bent as if in prayer.... But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?

Read all of "Flick, Flick" here, and see the full table of contents for the June 12 issue here.

Monday Morning Links: June 1

As Bernie Sanders draws great crowds in Iowa, this Mother Jones profile covers his early political years, including his curious piece of writing he now likens to Fifty Shades of Grey

CNN explains what authorities the government (temporarily) lost after some provisions in the Patriot Act expired at 12:01 this morning.

An interview with Edward Mendelson at Prospect magazine discusses how writers become more interested in religious language as they age.

Speaking of language for faith or non-faith, Molly Worthen’s column in the New York Times examines how atheists reckon with the moral and social consequences of an atheist identity. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott will sign a bill allowing guns on campus, with some provisions. 

Lúcás (Yiu Sing Luke) Chan, S.J.: Bridge-Builder

Last Sunday, I wrote “Grieving at Pentecost.” Now I would like to share with you a part of the homily I gave at Lúcás’ funeral.  It’s the first section where I consider his foundational contributions to Biblical ethics.  Later I spoke about ways he was a bridge-builder among friends.

In the beginning of each of his two books, Lúcás (Yiu Sing Luke) Chan, S.J. refers to building bridges.  He begins his first book, The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life, with “A schema for bridging biblical studies and Christian ethics” and he introduces his second book, Biblical Ethics in the Twenty-first Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions, with the overarching notion of “building bridges.”

Lúcás wrote about building bridges because he was a bridge builder.   The man whose spiritual and intellectual formation, began in Hong Kong and ended in Milwaukee, had built bridges as he moved to England, Singapore, Cambodia, Macau, the Philippines, the U.S., Ireland, as well as Italy and Germany.

As a moral theologian Lúcás built the bridge between biblical theology and Christian Ethics.  Lúcás’ argument was clear and critical: if someone wants to do biblical ethics they need to have the competency of a biblical theologian who can tell us what the scriptural text means and the competency of a moral theologian who knows how to think through the contemporary ethical application of the meaning of the text.  As Dan Harrington noted in Lúcás’ first book on the ten commandments and the beatitudes, Lúcás makes the argument, but what is more remarkable, he “performs it.”  He takes each of the ten commandments and the eight beatitudes, tells us what each means and how each can be applied by a virtue.  For instance, on the second beatitude, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Lúcás shows us that the grief Jesus is addressing is not over what one person has lost, but rather whether one empathizes for another’s loss.  The second beatitude follows from and is deeply connected to the first beatitude: the blessed are those mourning for those who are poor in spirit, that is, for those in the community who are struggling.  Lúcás writes, “Such is the lot of the disciples of Christ- when our brothers and sisters suffer, we cannot help but mourn.” (171) Then, after describing the meaning of the text, Lúcás proffers solidarity as the contemporary virtuous application of the second beatitude.  For this reason, Harrington called Lúcás’ book, “a manifesto for the double competencies of a biblically based ethics.”  In America magazine, Harrington called Lúcás’s work, “a milestone.”

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Why not? Update

As the congratulatory telegrams continue for Ireland's referendum last Sunday approving gay marriage and as we await the Supreme Court's decision on the issue of a constitutional right for gay marriage, we might consider some of the points Ross Douthat makes in today's column in the New York Times. It is headlined: "The Prospect for Polygamy."

Douthat grants that the issue of polygamy in the U.S. is an "outlier" among social issues, and it does seem far-fetched. Yet, it is worth thinking about his ultimate point: not today and not next year, but maybe 2040. And why not? What would keep the Supreme Court and public opinion from deciding there are no constitutional or moral bars to multi-person marriages?

UPDATE: The Gallup poll that Douthat references.

Trinitarian Communion

For all the commentary that Charles Taylor's monumental A Secular Age has generated, I think insufficient attention has been paid his culminating chapter, "Conversions." Here he tries to chart a path beyond secularity's dominant "immanent frame." Not surprisingly he turns to the poets as lantern bearers. Péguy enjoys a certain pride of place, but Hopkins figures prominently as well. Taylor writes:

Rejecting any doctrinal compromise with the spirit of his age, Hopkins returns decisively to the central Christian focus on communion as the goal of God's action in creation. God didn't just make us so that we could live according to the laws of his creation, but to participate in his love. What is striking is the way Hopkins brings to the fore once again the deep connection between this telos of communion and a recognition of the particular in all its specificity.

On this Trinity Sunday we might ponder that if communion is God's goal, it is because God's very life is Trinitarian communion. The fulfilled created image of God will be the realization of the communion of holy ones – as Dante saw so clearly. Communion, not fusion. Communion in which the names of each will continue to resound, now in blessed, beatifying harmony.

The Eucharist I will celebrate this morning will remember two wonderful parishioners who died far too young. Yet whose presence remains palpable. And here is how the homily concludes:

We pray that Michael and Robert may attain the fullness of their personhood in the loving communion of their Triune God. And as fellow members of the communion of saints, we dare hope that our prayers may support their entry into God's embrace.

And could we venture even further? Does their attainment of the fullness of personhood depend, in some measure, upon the living, loving relationships that they continue to inspire in us? Do we, by the lives we live, by our gratitude and generosity, truly contribute to their eternal joy?

All this we ponder, as Christians ever do, in the Presence of our Three-personed God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The divine GPS

The semi-official Vatican journal "La Civiltà Cattolica" has published an interview with Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues, professor of patristics and dogmatics at the Institut Supérieur Thomas d’Aquin, at the Dominican House of Studies in Toulouse, and at the Seminaire International St Cure'd Ars. He worked with Cristoph Schönborn in preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. With regard to issues likely to be the subject of passionate debate at the Synod of Bishops in October, Garrigues proposed a pastoral approach that takes into account the personal journeys of individuals. He offered a comtemporary analogy:

     When we take the wrong street or are distracted, the apparatus recalculates the route, taking note of our mistake and adapting the route so that we can reach the destination still desired. “Analogously, every time that we go off track by sinning, God does not require us to return to our point of departure because biblical conversion of heart, metanoia, is not a Platonic return to the starting point. God re-orients us towards himself, tracing a new route toward himself. Just as the destinations do not change in the GPS, so the moral goals do not change in God’s governance. What changes–and how great they are!–is the route that each person takes in his free journey towards moral maturity before God and towards God. Think of the number of alternative journeys that the divine GPS must have pointed out to the Good Thief before that final and supremely dramatic short-cut on the Cross!”

Andrea Tornielli’s summary of the interview can be found here, but strangely the English translation omits the paragraph I have translated above which can be found in the Italian version here.

The Enduring George Weigel Problem

George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.

Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.

And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel.  In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.

Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.

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Those Who Want Housing, and Those Who Need It

In London it’s become the fashion of wealthy homebuyers to supplement already sizable residences with cavernous subterranean lairs. In Manhattan it’s to move into a sky-high aerie, priced in the tens of millions, from which it’s possible to look down on the Empire State Building. In the Bay Area it’s to snap up anything inside the city limits of San Francisco, the near entirety of which has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley’s most monied.

Wealth has always shaped cities, but its current role in the transformation of urban centers around the world seems unprecedented, probably because there’s so much more of it, concentrated in ever-fewer hands, moving ever more fluidly and mysteriously through lightly regulated and technologically enhanced channels. Oligarch, plutocrat, or ordinary multimillionaire, the highest-net-worth property-seekers want to be in cities, or if nothing else be able to park their money in one (real estate being a good place to hide it). It may be a cliche to talk about the divide between rich and poor in places like London, New York, and San Francisco, but some cliches bear restating, especially when the divide seems increasingly inconceivable in its breadth -- the very function of a system engineered to practically ensure its further expansion. “Darwinian upscale urbanism,” as Martin Filler termed it in the New York Review of Books in April, referring specifically to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city he ran -- a place where the wealth of wealthy property owners was to trickle down to residents but instead, a researcher found, had “deleterious effects... on small business, the middle class, and taxpayers.”

It may not be easy to dig an enormous basement or live in a condo eighteen-hundred feet above street-level, but it would be even harder if there were not banks, developers, lawyers, real-estate firms, contractors, and politicians dedicated to making it possible.

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Anticipation and Climate Change

In his beautiful new book Finding and Seeking, Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers an extended critique of what he calls “anticipation” as a basis for moral deliberation. Anticipation is of a “middle-distance future” stemming from our actions, differing from the immediate “nearer future” of the specific purpose of our actions and the “further future” which, for Christianity, rests on the virtue of hope. O’Donovan suggests that good decision-making involves some anticipation, but it “must be kept in its place,” because our ability to control the middle-distance future is “fragile.” We all know this from experience: if we are contemplating a job change, we may see specific benefits and costs that will immediately result from it, and we may (as Christians) hope that we are contributing to God’s purposes for the world. But we can’t really know very clearly, five years down the road, how life will “look different” if we take the job or refuse it. What other opportunities might come along? What happens if there is a change in the business model of the company? The questions are virtually endless. Thus, if we get stuck on a “demand for definiteness” by relying on fragile anticipation, we may never decide, and we certainly won’t decide well.

O’Donovan’s larger concern here is how our public life increasingly is determined by this “demand for definiteness.” Candidates and official offer plans, and they are evaluated based on “what will happen.” This inevitably results in two problems. One, there arises “a preference for the short-term focus,” where predictability is most assured. Two, any attempts at a longer-term focus means “we must pretend to have a scientific statistical prediction, precisely in order to suit our generalized conception of what responsible decision-making ought to be.” But such “predictions” are of course exceedingly fragile, resulting in “a constant confusion of speculative anticipation with hard science.” The answer to “what will happen” if, say, the minimum wage is raised is uncertain – not entirely, of course, and economists can offer some reasonable claims about the trade-offs. If labor is more expensive, a business will have to think about various options – but even here, the options are quite different in different circumstances, with different business plans, in different places and industries. While all of this has value for prudence, it must be “put in its place” – one cannot say that minimum wage increases simply produce either “good” or “bad” results. The question must be subordinated to the question of how society as a whole maintains just wages over time.

But O’Donovan’s essay really made me think about the upcoming environmental encyclical and the place of climate change within it. “Anticipating” the effects of climate change is many orders of magnitude more difficult (but also more weighty!) than the effects of a job change or a minimum wage increase. Extreme weather events, like the unprecedented rainfall totals in Texas and Oklahoma or the ongoing drought in California, inevitably bring up the question of how temperature changes in the atmosphere affect weather patterns. THAT weather patterns are affected is not questionable; HOW they are affected is much more fragile. Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds, especially given our shockingly blasé attitude toward, say, the year 2100, a year we would expect children born today to live to see. But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity. I was in a conversation earlier this year where someone from the Boston area stated that she had long driven small cars, but that this winter, she had finally had enough and bought an SUV. What is one to do in this situation? What the person definitely knows is that the SUV will help her endure such winters, and the “anticipation” of the world in 2100 may not be a very strong counter.

All this points to something key about the environment encyclical: our news coverage and public policy is fixated on the “demand for definiteness,” and the question of what the pope has said about climate change will get a lot of attention. This is unfortunate. The moral weight of this encyclical – and any encyclical – does not rest on “anticipation.” Instead, it will likely rest on very traditional, core beliefs about two things. One, God has ordered creation. The Psalm response for today’s daily mass was “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” That’s not a prediction; that is a wisdom teaching about the good order of the world, which we arrogantly mess with at our peril. It’s also not a prediction that we are messing with it; that’s just clear. We are essentially using the atmosphere as an infinite waste dump – one might not wrongly say, “by the exhaust of our cars, the heavens were remade.”

And why are we doing that? For some good purpose? The likely emphasis on “integral ecology” will suggest that our disordering of creation is intertwined with a failure to love our neighbor in the fashion Christ tells us to. Put another way, the problem with big cars isn’t (simply) the “anticipated” effects of all this fossil fuel use; rather, cars are bad for loving your neighbor. Now, I’m not saying that somehow cars are per se bad. I’m saying cars – or at least an absolute reliance on them – is bad for human ecology, not just for natural ecology. Cars may in fact be the most important social strategy in America for people to avoid the problems of the poor. But even at a simpler level, what preacher has not used the example of our “response” to other drivers as an occasion where we express blatant anger at our neighbors?

We shouldn’t make environmental issues all about one thing, like cars. It’s not. But one of the major structures of sin that make reasonable efforts to deal with climate change so hard is we’ve built a society where we’re very attached to our cars. And my point here is that the Church’s concern for natural ecology is based on a belief, already stated clearly by Popes John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, nos. 37-38) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51), that environmental bads are rooted not only in a lack of care for creation, but in a lack of real love for our neighbors. Excessive energy use is rooted deeply in our individualism, our preference for going our own way, whatever it is, rather than cooperation and interdependence. Francis won’t need to rely on the fragile foundation of “anticipation” in order to tell us that.