A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

Catholic universities, adjuncts and income inequality

Gerald J. Beyer,  associate professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, has posted an interesting journal article that holds Catholic universities accountable for their treatment of poorly paid adjunct faculty. He writes:

Some Catholic institutions pay significantly above the national median per course, but the pay rate for most adjuncts on our campuses mostly mirrors national trends. Moreover, the fact that Catholic universities employ academics as temp workers as opposed to full time workers with decent benefits and job security is inexcusable -- even if they try to justify it with a utilitarian logic alien to Catholic social teaching. Saving costs on the backs of adjuncts to keep tuition down while spending money on highly paid administrators, athletics coaches, expensive athletics facilities, stadiums and luxury dorms runs afoul of the church's "preferential option for the poor." To add insult to injury, several Catholic university administrations have blocked the efforts of adjuncts to unionize, thereby stripping them of what John Paul II deemed an indispensable "mouthpiece in the struggle for social justice."

Also writing on the Catholic Church's teaching on the right to unionize, Jim Dwyer reports in the Times of support that Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York has shown for car wash workers who have unionized -- including a worker who will meet Pope Francis next week.

Whether for car washers or adjunct professors, this is how income inequality can be addressed. Catholic universities need to try harder to heed this tradition in Catholic teaching. No one is saying this is easy but, as Beyer notes, a good  step would be to stop filing legal challenges to prevent adjuncts from unionizing.


In 1981, when I was a senior at Amherst College and dreaming of becoming a great American novelist, little did I know that someone else on campus was already well on his way. Did I ever notice a tall, longhaired, granny-glasses-wearing person toting his tennis racquet toward the courts? I didn’t know many first-year students, and David Foster Wallace – high school tennis star and future author of the novel Infinite Jest and other unclassifiable books of genius -- was just one of the many lowly Freshman I paid no attention to. 

But Wallace, who suffered from depression and took his own life in 2008, was even then becoming known as a phenomenon. One legendary professor at Amherst, the late William Kennick, told me years later that in the four-plus decades he taught philosophy at the college, Wallace was far and away the most brilliant student he encountered, with the most powerful mind. At Amherst Wallace wrote not one senior thesis but two – a Pynchonesque novel, The Broom of the System, published soon after his graduation, and a critical inquiry into the work of American philosopher Richard Taylor, later published by Columbia University Press under the title Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will – and graduated with a double-summa degree. Years later he would add to his corpus a philosophical study of the history of the concept of infinity. At the same time, he produced a swath of articles taking up pop-cultural themes, like rap music, or political ones, like John McCain. And, of course, that enormous novel. His mind recognized few boundaries.

Read more

This Is Your Second GOP Primary Debate Liveblog

T-minus any-minute-now, several dozen (or so) GOP hopefuls will assemble before CNN's finest to answer the American people's burning questions, such as: Does Donald Trump's hair look smaller since Tom Brady endorsed him?

Click on through to the comments for live updates. Opine early. Refresh often.

They're Right, We're not a Christian Nation

I don't believe it makes sense to call the United States a "Christian nation" – not now, and not in the past, however essential you reckon religion's place in America's history and development. Instead, I mean the rhetorical trope of lamenting our fall from virtue when public policy and the broader culture no longer privilege certain Christian teachings. Or rather the teachings some Christians have decided are central to their political project. When gays and lesbians marry, or when a transgender person reveals her struggle, or undercover videos surface, inevitably the disappointed (or outraged) comments on social media emerge, and our Professional Christians take to the airwaves and television studies to furrow their brows.

And yet I never see quite that reaction when a court decision confirms our country's commitment to executing its own citizens as a form of criminal punishment, even if that execution takes place in almost unfathomably cruel and incompetent ways. Compare, say, the hysteria surrounding the Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide to what was generated by the Glossip decision handed down just three days later. How many of us even remember that a case involving the death penalty was decided this term by the Supreme Court — let alone it’s details? (If you missed Cathleen Kaveny's excellent column on Glossip decision, by the way, read it now.)

I mention all this because at 3 p.m. today, Richard Glossip was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma. A state appeals court granted a fourteen day stay of execution as judges consider his latest appeal.

Glossip was convicted of hiring a 19-year-old named Justin Sneed to murder Barry Van Treese, a hotel owner and Glossip’s boss. Many think Glossip is plausibly innocent. Reason magazine’s Lauren Galik, in a helpful summary of the case, explains why:

Read more

Join Us for Tonight's GOP Debate

A couple few of us are going to take a crack at liveblogging tonight's festivities. The party start doesn't start till 8 p.m., which gives you plenty of time to fill out Rand's debate scorecard. BYOB. 

Scoring Tonight's Debate

Here is my guide to scoring candidates’ performances in tonight’s Republican presidential debate and how they will likely be judged, using metrics derived from this year’s campaign so far.


Other Candidates:

Did he/she show a detailed command of the issues, both domestic and international?

Did he/she explain those issues articulately and incisively?

Did he/she show the kind of temperament well-suited to being President?

Did he/she offer a compelling personal story outlining his/her qualification to lead?

Did he/she engage opponents on the issues, without resort to ad hominem attacks?

Did he or she succeed in putting forth an inspiring vision of our country and its future?


Donald Trump:

Did he insult women, Latinos, African-Americans and/or other groups?

Did he gloat over having fired employees, closed down companies, or defaulted on loans?

Did he boast about his good looks and/or sexual prowess?

Did he slander the masculinity of other male candidates?

Did he proudly list the politicians he has bought off over the years?

Did he manage to imply that the US is fast becoming a stinking rathole that only he has the power to fumigate and salvage?

Did he boost his bargaining position for returning to The Apprentice?



Feel free to add your own criteria.



Fortress or Field Hospital: The Video

Editor-at-large Mollie Wilson O'Reilly, moderator of the Commonweal panel discussion "Fortress or Field Hospital?" held last Saturday, opened the proceedings with "the bold claim that it has been, I'd say, a good few years for what has been called, sometimes hopefully and sometimes with a sneer, the spirt of Vatican II. And the excitement surrounding the Synod on the Family is proof of that." Things took off from there as David Gibson (national reporter for Religion News Service); Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity and former co-director of Rutgers’s National Marriage Project); Margaret Farley (RSM Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, Yale Divinity School); and Cathleen Kaveny (professor of law and theology, Boston College) weighed in with their thoughts on what to expect, what to hope for, and what the bishops, prelates, and priests should do when they reconvene in October. Earlier this week, contributor Paul Lakeland touched on some of the points that got his attention; read his post, and, if you weren't able to attend or watch the live event, here's the video. 

!0th Video

For those following the CMP videos, number 10 is on YouTube.

Top quote: "Everything we provide is fresh." But there's more.

Will Planned Parenthood give up this source of funding in order to keep operating?

It would seem prudent.



The Politics of Pronunciation

Broad interest was piqued by the flap over Vanessa Ruiz, the Arizona news anchor whose on-air Spanish pronunciation sparked controversy. Some listeners objected vehemently to the way Ruiz, who is American-born and bilingual, rolled her r’s while pronouncing Spanish words, and gave a Spanish lilt to Arizona place names, like “Mesa,” derived from that language. The Times reported that Ruiz “defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken.”

Well, yes... but by whom, and to whom, and where?

Leaving politics aside, Americans know that pronouncing foreign words in English can be a real mishmash. What are the guidelines? Certainly those people who push for Anglicizing everything have some cogent arguments on their side. When I refer to Paris I don’t say “Paree;” Munich isn’t “Muenchen,” and so on.  Words and phrases borrowed directly from other languages, like “deja vu” or “zeitgeist,” moreover are typically not pronounced as they would be by native speakers; to do so – for example, to pronounce the initial consonant of “zeitgeist” as “tz” -- is to imply that you actually speak the origin language. (An amusing video,  called “The Guy Who Over-Pronounces Foreign Words,” hilariously sends up these pretensions.) On the other hand, most American commentators do manage to pronounce “Angela Merkel” with a hard g, as Germans do; the second word of “noblesse oblige” is not given a long i; and so on.  One is tempted to assert a pragmatic commonsense rule: use English pronunciation, unless and until a more authentic pronunciation becomes standard.

Read more

New Issue Is Up

In addition to what we've released in advance (like Rand Richards Cooper's review of James Ponsoldt's film about David Foster Wallace The End of the Tour, Dominic Preziosi’s interview with NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and The Editors's comments on the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East), the rest of the September 25 issue is now up on the site. Here are some highlights.

Rita Ferrone wonders why—since there are significantly fewer priests than there are sick people—non-priests can't anoint the sick. Margaret O'Brien Steinfels urges us to think papally, act locally, and consider the garbage we create. Frank Pierson tells how religious institutions and organizers in Nevada have responded to the underground sex trade deeply rooted in Las Vegas, despite the risks. In a book essay about unions and the democratic party, Steven Greenhouse reviews longtime Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan's new book about the many depressing ways American workers have been moving backward. And Mark Whitters recalls his visit to the Old Palestinian city of Hebron and the lessons in international diplomacy it (un)taught him.

Plus: Gary Greenberg reviews Alice Dreger's Galileo's Middle Finger, an account of her interviews with fellow academics who've been victims of smear campaigns largely brought on by "politcal correctness," and an analysis of the problems about science and democracy these stories reveal. Paul Lakeland reviews Kate Atkinson's companion novel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins. Gerald Russello reviews a new collection of a lifetime's worth of letters author James Agee sent to his childhood priest Father Flye. And Tom Deignan reviews Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, a novel that traces the affects 9/11 has had on families of service people who live on Staten Island—where 10 percent of the victims of the attacks lived.

See the full table of contents for September 25 here. And if you need to catch up on back issues, you can find them all here.

Triage in the Field Hospital

Saturday's Commonweal event on marriage and the family was thoroughly informative (watch it here). Lots of good thoughts, so much common sense, but what stuck with me the most was David Gibson's question, given that the papal visit to the U.S. was already on the schedule before the election of Pope Francis, would he otherwise have made a trip over here a priority? Interesting to speculate, no way to be sure.

Two interrelated questions have been bugging me since the panel ended. First: if Robert Putnam's analysis in his latest book, Our Kids, so ably channeled by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, is correct, then the troubles with the family in American life are merely epiphenomenal, and to get at the roots of the marital crisis we have to solve the problem of inadequate income among those with less education. It's not a new idea to say that we would have much more social stability if we had an economy supplying jobs that paid a living wage at every level of our social hierarchy. But perhaps it puts questions about communion for the divorced and remarried into perspective. This is a serious issue and it ought to be solved employing the preferred papal virtue of mercy, but it won't do anything for the underlying social issues. And much the same can be said for loosening up the other issues around divorce and annulment and remarriage. Putnam shows pretty clearly that the plight of the poor has more to do with the absence of marriage or laxity about marital commitments than it does with agonizing over remarriage. If the church is truly a field hospital, as Pope Francis has suggested, then it has to practice triage, like any other field hospital. In other words, where are the really critical issues that require the most urgent attention?

My second question is about how the Synod on the Family is going down in the global south. We all know about conservative African bishops who think homosexuality is criminal and who take a dim view of how the church in the north approaches issues of sexuality and marriage. But isn't there just a bit of a danger that we in North America don't see that the priorities we would like to see addressed might come across in less affluent parts of the church as the whining of spoiled brats? If the synod can find its way to more compassionate approaches to divorce and remarriage or can loosen up its rules on receiving communion, how much does this mean for the large parts of the church where marriage is mostly common law marriage or where communion for anyone at all is a rare treat from the occasional visiting priest?

So I wonder if this Synod on the Family isn't in the papal mind an effort to clear away some of the less important issues that are causing unnecessary pain, so that the real issues of global poverty and the many ills that follow can become the real agenda for a church of missionary disciples.

Peter Steinfels on Contraception, in The Washington Post

In case you missed it, Peter Steinfels took to the opinion page of The Washington Post Friday to further the case he made in his recent Commonweal article, “Contraception and Honesty.” From his piece in the Post (in which he also calls Pope Francis “the U.S. church’s best chance of overcoming a bad case of spiritual anemia”):

The church’s unwillingness to grapple with a deep and highly visible gap between official teaching [on contraception] and actual practice undermines Catholic vigor and unity at every level. It encourages Catholics to disregard all manner of other teachings, including those on marriage and abortion. If the church wants to restore its moral authority, it must address this gnawing question.

Sample the reader comments at your discretion. Also, recall that we featured a video interview with Peter on this topic a couple of months ago. Watch below.

Big Sports

A lengthy article in the Times today solicits the views of Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame, regarding the future of big-time college sports. 

Those of you who avoid the sports pages (full disclosure: I watch an unhealthy amount of college basketball) are nevertheless probably aware that the business of college sports, the power of the NCAA, and the status of student-athletes have all sparked vehement debate in recent years. Current legal actions include an effort by college football players for the right to unionize (rejected in August by the NLRB) and to be compensated for branding usages (the O’Bannon case, in which a federal judge ruled in 2014 that players should be paid when their names or images are used commercially). Many commentators have advocated for such compensation, including historian Taylor Branch, whose  2011 essay in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” argues forcefully for paying college athletes as a matter of justice, and calls for “the smokescreen of amateurism” to be “swept away.”

Read more

New Stories on the Website

Right now we’re featuring three new stories on the website.

First is Robert Mickens’s latest Letter from Rome, in which he looks at Francis’s decision on streamlining annulments, which did not “just drop out of the sky”:

Bishops and priests from almost every part of the world have been calling for such a reform for a number of years. The Synod of Bishops even took up the issue in 2005 at the assembly on the Eucharist, when the fathers made a veiled reference to annulment reform in their final list of suggestions or propositions to Benedict XVI (Prop. 40). The former pope, even for many years before becoming Bishop of Rome, had expressed interest in actually broadening the valid reasons for an annulment to include “lack of a solid Christian formation” (or faith) necessary for receiving the sacrament of matrimony. But other than pondering this out loud, he did nothing to make it a reality. Pope Francis has now moved the ball forward.

Read the whole thing here.

Also featured, an interview with Carmen Fariña, chancellor of the New York City public school system, the largest in the United States. Fariña discusses Common Core, student testing, and what she’s learned in the course of her fifty years in education—some of which she picked up as a student in Catholic elementary and high schools.

For high school I went to St. Michael’s Academy in Manhattan, and that was transformational. It was an all-girls school, and I had some of the brightest nuns…. One of them, Sr. Leonard, is the reason I’m here today. She understood that because my parents were immigrants, we didn’t know the process for going to college. In those days, in my culture in particular, you didn’t aspire to go to college. You’d like to go if you wanted to be a teacher, but my parents didn’t know how to fill out applications and they didn’t know about scholarships. Sr. Leonard in my sophomore year saw I wasn’t on the right track to be able to apply to college. So she made it her business to change my trajectory. … You know, there’s something about paying that back. That’s one of the things about immigrant kids, they pay it back. As a regional superintendent I did a poll of my 150 principals and asked how many were first in their families to go to college as I was, and it was more than 70 percent. There’s something to be said for that. When families care about education and you’re the first in your family to go to college, you pay it back in a different way.

Read the whole thing here.

And, with the European Union deciding how best to address the refugee crisis, the editors write on the special responsibility of the United States:

The United States has accepted only fifteen hundred Syrian asylum-seekers since 2011. In May, fourteen Democratic senators proposed that the United States take in sixty-five thousand Syrian refugees, only to be rebuffed by the Republicans. Fair-minded people can disagree about conventional immigration policy, but why have we essentially closed our doors to people fleeing one of the most brutal wars imaginable? Surely, whatever potential threat a tiny minority of these refugees might pose can be easily managed. This country has refused asylum to those fleeing persecution and death in the past, and later deeply regretted doing so. Opening our doors to Syrian refugees is both just the right thing to do and a necessary acknowledgement of the responsibility the United States bears for the current chaos and slaughter in the Middle East. We went to war in Iraq in 2003 convinced that we knew best how to rearrange the political, economic, and social lives of those in the Arab world. That was a catastrophic folly, and our responsibility to those left behind in the bloodlands did not end when the United States withdrew its forces.

Read all of “Works of Mercy” here.

Commonweal's Saturday Panel on the Synod: Come in Person, or Watch at Home

Commonweal is hosting a panel discussion this coming Saturday afternoon at 4:00 PM in New York: "Fortress or Field Hospital? The Synod Takes on the Family." It's moderated by editor at large Mollie Wilson O'Reilly, and we're welcoming a stellar lineup of panelists:

  • Margaret Farley, RSM. Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, Yale Divinity School. Author of Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing and Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.
  • David Gibson. National reporter for Religion News Service. Author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne).
  • Cathleen Kaveny. Professor of Law and Theology, Boston College. Author of Law’s Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society.Commonweal columnist.
  • Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity. Former co-director of Rutgers' National Marriage Project. Author of The Divorce Culture and Why There Are No Good Men Left.

We'd love to have you come in person (it's free for students, a modest charge for others) so please get your last-minute tickets here; there's a reception afterwards with all the panelists and other Commonweal editors, readers, and friends.

But if you can't make it in person, you can watch live online via Feel free to watch and, if you like, you can also send questions to the panel on social media, either before or during the event. Just post questions on Twitter or Facebook using the tag #liveatcommonweal.

Climate Change and the Migrant Crisis

If you get your information from news headlines, the migration crisis currently bedeviling Europe might seem to have come out of nowhere. And people don’t seem terribly interested in digging into the roots of the crisis. It is simply assumed that people are fleeing war, poverty, and ISIS. Especially ISIS.

But what most people don’t seem to realize—or don’t want to talk about—is how much this crisis has its roots in climate change. The clearest example of this is Syria, the origin of the vast majority of refugees.

The facts here are incontrovertible. Study after study shows that the political unrest and civil war in Syria can be traced to an unprecedented drought since 2006—the worst since the dawn of agricultural civilization in the fertile crescent. The results of this severe and prolonged drought were devastating. Nearly 75 percent of farmers suffered crop failure. Herders in affected regions lost 85 percent of their livestock. 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihoods. And two to three million were pushed into poverty. And the mass migration began even before the war, with about 1.5 million people flooding into cities.

Read more

Annulments & Assessments

Much papal news in and outside of the mainstream media today, much stemming from Francis’s announcement on annulments, more assessing his strategies and successes on curial reform, and some on his call over the weekend for Catholics in Europe to extend the welcome to migrants and refugees.

On annulments: Emma Green at The Atlantic says the new policy is the first tremor signaling the big shakeups to come, while David Gibson, writing at NCR, takes a closer look at the streamlining of procedures and questions what effect the changes will have in the United States, “where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.” And at Crux, Inés San Martín goes a little bit deeper into the details. Now might also be a good time to view (or review) our Commonweal Reading List on the state of Catholic marriage, updated to reflect new developments.

At The New Yorker, Alexander Stille assesses Francis’s chances of making changes to the Curia, given how for “the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited.” “I got a glimpse of how difficult that might be,” Stilles writes

when I attended a gathering of high-level Vatican officials in Rome earlier this year and overheard a cardinal talking about how L’Espresso, an Italian news magazine, would soon be publishing a damaging exposé of the free-spending ways of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian whom Francis brought in to clean up the Vatican’s finances. The article was based on leaked documents, and the cardinal was clearly pleased with its imminent publication. “When Francis came in, the attitude was that everything that the Italians did was bad and corrupt—now it is a little more complicated,” he said. He felt that it was important to settle accounts with those he viewed as “pseudo-reformers.”

Paul Vallely, at New York Magazine, writes on what he sees as the pope’s “wily political strategy,” one built on alliance-building, openness to confrontation, and planning: “The pope’s friends describe him as a ‘chess player’ whose ‘every step has been thought out.’”

The Washington Post reports that Hungary’s Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo is not on board with Francis’s call this weekend for Europe’s Catholics to open their churches, monasteries, and homes as sanctuaries for those seeking refuge. “They’re not refugees,” Rigo said, quoted in the Post. “This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.” The Vatican itself is taking in two refugee families, now giving it the ability, according to The Guardian, to respond to Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League, “who in a radio interview once sarcastically asked how many migrants were living in Vatican City.”

Conversing and Confessing

This country is so wildly diverse, with so many subcultures, values, backgrounds and personal styles, that sometimes you just shake your head. Or at least I do. Rarely do I feel more foreign in my own land than during my chance encounters with a particular type of fellow American: the casual conversational divulger. I’m talking about the person you’ve just met, who for some unaccountable reason tells you everything – that solitary sailor, as Tom Waits sings, who spends the facts of his life like small change on a stranger.

Read more

The America Francis Will Visit

My wife and I don't watch much TV—I marvel that people have the time!—but we plunked down on Friday, after a long back-to-school week, to watch 20/20's "Pope Francis and the People." And we've been thinking and talking about it since.

The show's opening is a bit hokey—reality TV comes to the Vatican—but then you meet, well, real people: two students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago; a young man who lived some of his teen years homeless in Los Angeles; a single mother and her two young daughters who likewise lived in shelters in Los Angeles; a "dreamer" in Texas whose college scholarship was withdrawn when the school learned of his immigration status; a young girl who recently escaped from El Salvador with her mother; a religious sister first seen embracing the girl's mother as the girl tells Francis her harrowing story. Nearly all these persons cried when speaking with the pope, but there was nothing at all contrived about the emotion they expressed. Instead, it was deeply moving.

It hardly needs stating: this is not Donald Trump's America. Not one of the persons who speak with the pope is white or well-to-do, and Spanish is more often the language at home. We meet Americans suffering from autoimmune disease and bullying, poverty, indifference, homelessness, gang violence financed by our drug addictions, and hardhearted, grandstanding politics. These same Americans are also, however, profiles in courage and hope, supported by institutions, like Cristo Rey, and persons, like Sister Norma, worthy of national pride. But what will happen, for example, to the girl and her mother from El Salvador? Will the young "dreamer" be granted citizenship and be able to enroll in college? Will the young man in Los Angeles find a way through life?

I'd be interested to know how these persons were chosen to meet the pope. What hand did the Vatican have? Did 20/20, having done its research about the pope, propose these profiles, or did Francis specify the America he wanted presented to us? In any event, it was persons on the margins who, for an hour, came front and center. Here's hoping this is a preview of what Francis will show us when he visits. And I'm also hoping Francis will be so bold to address Congress in Spanish. That would, again, be TV worth watching....

The Papal Visit Beyond Issues

As the visit of Pope Francis approaches, many groups are weighing in on what they hope he talks about. Certainly there are many pressing and deadlocked issues on which the pope’s voice might be seen as one above the political fray (although insofar as groups in the political fray try to use his message, that effect is diminished). Issues such as immigration, the environment, economic inequality, and capital punishment are ones where Francis has been outspoken, and all of these are quite alive in the political discourse (if not in really realistic and ambitious policy).

Count me leaning pessimistic. Here’s how I see the problem. Let’s imagine asking a question: on a scale of 1 to 10, how close is current American culture to the overall Catholic vision of the person in society? 1 is completely at odds, 10 is completely in sync. I know the conventional response here: American culture is all over the map, some aspects are close, some are not. Some seem to be moving one way, some another. How can we answer the question “overall”?

The effect of ignoring the “overall” question is to make Catholic social teaching sound like it is simply a set of issue statements. What is the Catholic position on X or Y? Two problems then arise. First, it becomes difficult to make the appropriate distinctions between principles and particular policies. This is true whether an issue is “liberal” or “conservative”—it’s a problem whether we are talking about immigration or same-sex marriage. Second, it becomes difficult to give an account why, by and large, neither of the two parties seem to embrace all the “issue principles” as a group. Parties simply are the vehicles we have in the U.S. by which voters speak and by which candidates rise in the ranks and get nominated. Put in somewhat bleak terms, the difficulty of getting straight on how the principles come together in a larger vision means that the deployment of Catholicism starts looking like a strategy of convenience and simple political manipulation—and again, this can be done from both sides of the partisan divide. And generally speaking, regardless of the side, I don’t think Catholic social teaching gains in credibility if it looks like it simply appears when convenient on a particular issue.

Thus, the “overall” question is really an attempt to get us to dig a bit deeper to get past many years (decades?) of Catholic teaching simply being deployed for partisan purposes. What’s the deeper vision and to what extent are the seeds of such a vision growing or withering in American culture? That question has two poles. The easier pole is saying something about the deeper vision. Whether it’s Benedict or Francis, I think it is pretty easy to say Catholic social thought sees the person as oriented to transcendence (“vertically”) and communitarian (“horizontally”). I mean, that’s just the unity of love of God and neighbor, and the two “parts” are really inseparably intertwined. My interpretation of Catholic social thought would argue for a pretty wide latitude in fleshing out the meanings of “spiritual” and “communitarian” commitments in a pluralistic society, but it would be a problem if (a) these seemed to be eroding, and/or (b) very corrupt versions of them were appearing. (So, for example, nativism or fascism looks communitarian in some ways, but would in fact be a false vision of it.)

What can be said about the “American culture” pole in relation to this vision? This is much harder—after all, any generalizations about “American culture” can almost always be contested, because there are many, diverse “cultures.” But it’s hard for me to deny that the general drift on these is poor. Religious commitment is down overall, with a particularly sharp generational skew, and it is hard to point to either studies or political phenomena that indicate a resurgence of “community.” For evidence of decline appearing in so many places, see here and here. By contrast, the libertarian elements of each party seem more likely to advance.

Now, this last paragraph of generalization is (as I said) super-contestable, and since I am at heart an optimist (the Cubs are going to the playoffs this year), I’d love to be convinced that the vision or spirit is a movin’ better than I am seeing. It would be nice to see Francis, rather than just go after issues, come to speak with America about losing a sense of the spiritual and falling prey to individualism, and call for some conversion on these fronts. This diagnosis and call for conversion is, after all, pervasive in Laudato Si’ as the pope’s diagnosis of the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. Moreover, these themes do speak to the other issues mentioned above (immigration, etc.), and would perhaps allow Catholics to speak about them in a way that appeared more “religious” and less “partisan.” A model example: Archbishop Cupich’s response to the Planned Parenthood videos. He hit all the issues. But he diagnosed the deeper problems, too. I am sure Francis will do that, too. I just hope it gets reported.

And I hope he does not inadvertently bless the New York Mets as he travels through town…