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Walking in Putin's Shoes UPDATE

Patrick J. Buchanan, you remember him, invites us to consider the current situation in Mittel Europa from Putin's point of view.

"When Putin defended the seizure of Crimea by saying he did not want to visit Russia’s two-century-old naval base at Sevastopol, and be greeted by NATO sailors, did he not have a point?"

Buchanan, the isolationist, has his own point about NATO, etc., but still an interesting note of empathy.

UPDATE:  Two developments of note: 1. One of the leading candidates Vitali Klitschko, a former boxer, has withdrawn his name from the presidential election, arguing that candidates should unite behind Petro Poroshenko a billionaire in order to heal the division in Ukrainian society. This may put pressure on other candidates to stand down, i.e., Yulia  Tymoshenko. Story here.

2. Right Sector, the right-wing of the Maidan protestors, is surrounding the Parliament and demanding the resignation of the Minister of the Interior...these are the right-wingers that Putin has cited as being anti-Russian and fascists. Story here quote after the break.

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Americans and the ‘obnoxiously different’

Writing in the current New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell offers a reliably pat pronouncement in his assessment of the conflict at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, which culminated in the deaths of seventy-four people on April 19, 1993. He says the lesson of “the battle of [Waco]… is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.” He goes on to write that “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing,” and then as supporting evidence provides a tidy, three-sentence recap of the death of Joseph Smith at the hands of an armed mob while awaiting trial in Illinois in 1844.
 
It’s not really the words “obnoxiously different” that are the problem; Gladwell notes the construct comes from historian R. Laurence Moore, who about the Mormons wrote: “[They] said they were different and their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree….” The problem is that the spirit of lazy assertion (“the lesson of Waco is that Americans aren’t good at respecting…” and “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing”) undermines the larger if perhaps equally tossed-off observations Gladwell makes in the piece.
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Francis & Obama meet, opening singularity that sucks oxygen out of U.S. media.

On my way home from work last night, I fired up my Twitter feed and found a series of tweets suggesting that today's meeting between pope and president might not go as well as some liberals had been predicting. They had read a piece by Thomas Reese, SJ, who worried that "controversy" could "cloud" the event. He'd seen a Vatican Radio report that concluded with a sloppy summary of disagreements between Obama and the U.S. bishops over the contraception mandate and gay marriage--rather than emphasizing areas of agreement, such as poverty. Reese pointed out that Vatican Radio is under the direction of Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, and wondered whether the article in question might be part of a "coordinated media strategy coming out of the Vatican Secretariat of State."

When Tom talks about the Catholic Church, people listen--as well they should. Good luck finding a more knowledgable observer of the scene. But on this issue, I think Tom's final thought in that post is the one worth heeding: "Sometimes a story is just a story and has no more authority than the individual author." Vatican Radio is not micromanaged by the Holy See press shop. If it were, people might start thinking the pope was poised to adopt the agenda of Future Church.

Over the past week, it seems like everybody with an internet connection has published explainers and prognostications about the meeting. It's only natural. The first Latin American pope meets the first black president. Is Pope Francis the Barack Obama of the Vatican? Obama the Francis of Washington? Contraception mandate at the Supreme Court. Putin's border-crossings. Inequality. Poverty. War. It's news. But media coverage has run the gamut from useful to really not.

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A pope who reminds us of the church we know

The historian Molly Worthen has a worthwhile essay about (what else) Pope Francis in the American Prospect, which you should read now or save for a day when you're not too poped out. Worthen, the author of the new book Apostles of Reason (and a friend from my undergraduate days), offers a quick and perceptive summary of the history of American attitudes toward the pope. But it's her explanation for the "Francis Effect" that I found most insightful. It gets at a truth I don't think I've seen articulated anywhere else.

Liberal and conservative Catholics have "found cause for complaint" with Francis's priorities, she notes, and yet:

Despite this grumbling, the vast majority of American Catholics (88 percent, as of December) approve of Francis. The reason is not because they believe he will settle questions that have troubled the church for generations. Rather, his example—his decision to wash the feet not of fellow priests but of juvenile inmates on Holy Thursday; his invitation to homeless men to join him on his birthday—reminds many Catholics of what the church means to them on a daily basis and what they hope it means to the world.

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Justice Kennedy's Logic Puzzle

Everyone knows the power granted by Justice Kennedy’s middle position on the Supreme Court. Indeed Paul Clement, the advocate for the plaintiffs in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, seemed to direct most of his arguments toward the concerns he imagines Kennedy to have about the case.

But even in Clement's most hopeful fantasies, he could not have imagined the gift that Kennedy would present him during questioning of the Solicitor General. Kennedy introduced the idea that, by the logic of the government’s case -- in some future scenario, at the calamitous bottom of a slippery slope -- for-profit corporations could be forced to “pay for abortions.”

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Holding Steady with DFW

The Hold Steady--my favorite band and the subject of a great post here by Eric Bugyis--just came out with a new album called Teeth Dreams. It offers all the pleasures fans have come to expect from the best bar band in America: smart lyrics, rocking music, and an epic, 9-minute song to cap things off. It also offers an example of one great writer, the band's Craig Finn, responding to another: David Foster Wallace.

In several interviews, Finn has talked about how his reading of Infinite Jest--twice, no less!--while working on the album helped shape its particular vision of "American sadness":

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Putin: Why Did He? UPDATE: And why won't he.

Putin's motives and actions have been cloaked in a fog of political confusion and media alarum. Here is a piece, the first I've seen, that makes some sense about what has happened in the Crimea.

One item: "Safeguarding this maritime muscle [navy base in Crimea] may well have been one reason President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent armed forces to seize Crimea. But is it possible that the Sevastopol base is just the most concrete manifestation of Russia’s deep interests in Ukraine that the United States and its NATO allies either ignored or forgot as they tried to bind it more tightly with the West?"  NYTimes.

Have you seen stories that throw light on Ukraine, Russia, etc?

UPDATE: Here is William Pfaff (corrected link) in CWL on why Putin has gone as far as he will go. Too Sanguine?

Pope Francis sacks 'Bishop of Bling.'

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany. The bishop was suspended in October, after it came to light that the new residential complex he was building for himself would cost a cool $43 million, including a $20,000 bathtub (cheaper than the $27,000 fine he had to pay for lying under oath), a $35,000 table, and $500,000 wardrobes. Nothing but the best for the man who flew first class to visit the poor of India.

To be sure, $43 million is a lot more than the $500,000 the outgoing Archbishop of Newark is spending to renovate his retirement home. (Take comfort, Newark Catholics, your new bishop is on this. Try to focus on the fact that for a long time Myers was willing to live in the actual city of Newark, which is, you know, Newark.) And it's still a lot more than the $2.2 million Archbishop of Atlanta is reportedly shelling out for his own residence, on top of another $2.2 million to renovate a rectory (all paid for with a $15 million bequest from the nephew of the author of Gone with the Wind). Newark and Atlanta Catholics may not be quite as offended by their archbishops' reno bills as are their co-religionists in Limburg, but it looks like the pope is really not kidding about wanting a church that is poor and for the poor.

According to a Vatican statement, the pope removed the bishop because of "a situation that prevents a fruitful exercise of the ministry of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst." In other words, he skunked his own authority by scandalizing the faithful through his misuse of funds.

Can you think of any other situations that might prevent the fruitful exercise of a bishop's ministry?

Strangest Strangeness

The Annunciation has been a favorite theme with painters, but it has also inspired a fair amount of poetry. Many poems about the Annunciation are really poems about paintings of the Annunciation. This one, by Edwin Muir, is not obviously about any particular painting, but it suggests that the encounter between Mary and the angel was as still as any representation of it could be. Outside the window, the movement of an ordinary day continues: footsteps fall and "with the sun along the wall / Pursue their unreturning way." Inside, bliss has interrupted time: "Immediacy / Of strangest strangeness is the bliss / That from their limbs all movement takes." One is reminded of W. H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts," with its observation that suffering "takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." Muir's poem suggests that suffering is not unique in this respect: every kind of intense experience, including bliss, takes place amid the heedless routines of daily life.

 

THE ANNUNCIATION

The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.

The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

Why Convert?

Rod Dreher shares a letter that Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun, composed for a possible convert to Orthodoxy. She said in part:

I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. You will find as much “wrong” (if not more) in Orthodoxy as in the Anglican or Roman Churches.

So – the first point is, are you prepared to face lies, hypocrisy, evil and all the rest, just as much in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or denomination?

Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music?

Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side?

Have you a cookery book with all the authentic Russian recipes for Easter festivities?

Are you an expert in kissing three times on every possible or improper occasion?

Can you prostrate elegantly without dropping a variety of stationery out of your pockets?

OR…..

Have you read the Gospels?

Have you faced Christ crucified?

Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius today (UPDATED 1:30 PM)

And here we are. After years of debate, protest, and litigation about the "HHS mandate" and its levels of exemption, accommodation, or non-accommodation under the Affordable Care Act, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and the related Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius are having their day in the Supreme Court.

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On sex abuse, asking the right questions

The announcement over the weekend of the new Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors made me think that at least I was asking the right questions at the panel discussion with Cardinal O'Malley last Wednesday. Leadership roles for women? They make up half the membership of this commission (so far), a good start. Will O'Malley be advising Francis on appointments to the commission, or sex-abuse-related policies and priorities? Obviously (as he must have already known).

As for accountability: it's something the commission may (and should) decide to take up. I think Mark Silk has it right. After quoting the Vatican's official description of the commission's duties, he writes:

I would suggest to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the big dog on the commission, that the key item on this list is “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities.” In the U.S.and many other places around the world, there’s  been plenty of attention to education and the discipline of abusers, to say nothing of symbolic acts of ecclesiastical apology. What’s needed are binding and enforceable legal procedures.

All the best practices in the world aren't going to be much help if there's no visible, consistent, appropriate policy for dealing with bishops and others who ignore them. Silk is encouraged by the presence on the commission of Baroness Sheila Hollins, who, he says, "is notable for calling on the Vatican to punish church officials (read: bishops) who fail to implement or enforce church rules on pedophile priests." And honestly, any lay person -- even a titled one -- should be a big help in reminding the pope and cardinals that attending to the view from outside the Vatican is what matters most if the church is ever going to recover from this blow to its credibility.

Crumbling Crackers Crisis

No, not Ukraine. Much closer to home. After the Christmas crisis looking for usable pot holders and candy canes, the household now faces the crisis (and mystery) of crumbling crackers. Our long-time favorites "Stoned Wheat Thins," crumble when touched, barely touched.

What are crackers good for? As platforms for peanut butter, herring, and cheese. Shortly after the New Years, opening a new box, I found they did not stay intact long enough to break in half along their perforation. Forget peanut butter!!! Subsequent boxes: more crumble.

Took the matter in hand and wrote to the manufacturer, Mondelez. They have replied: "The differences you noted may be due to a change in the production facility and the process we use to make the cracker. We have also made some minor changes to the formula. Some of the changes we made are: Changed the oil; Removed the Whey Powder; Added Ammonium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite (used to make dough rise)....We apologize for this experience. We will make sure our Quality team is aware of your comments. Thank you for your loyalty and we hope that your next experience is a good one."

Can the experience of crumbling crackers ever be a good one?

What's on the website

Currently featured on the homepage, Nathan Schneider’s tribute to poet Ned O’Gorman, and E. J. Dionne Jr.’s latest column, on how opponents of the Affordable Care Act are casting the fight in terms of reducing government’s role in helping the vulnerable.

We also continue to look back on some of the stories that appeared during the 1920s, our first decade in print, and we’ll be featuring more from the archives in the days to come as we mark our ninetieth year of publication. And, now through Easter, we’re running Joseph A. Komonchak's series of Lenten reflections: a new reading from Augustine appears daily, so make sure to visit our dedicated page every morning. 

Nietzsche's Jesus ... and ours

Whatever else Christian theology is, it is an exercise in literary criticism. That is, to be a theologian is to take revelation seriously and taking revelation seriously means understanding that God has revealed himself in the Scriptures. To understand those Scriptures, then, one needs to pay attention to form, to genre, to plot, to figures of speech, and all the rest. And of course knowledge of history and philosophy and archeology among a host of relevant disciplines can and should be brought to bear on interpreting those Scriptures.

This is all a roundabout way of introducing two excellent literary critics: Terry Eagleton and Friedrich Nietzsche. If you haven’t read Eagleton’s article in the most recent Commonweal, go and do that now. What I write here is intended to be a codicil to Eagleton’s piece. * I’ve just finished teaching Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and as usual, the students were in turn angered, surprised, and bewildered. And that anger, surprise, and bewilderment came from Nietzsche’s interpretations of the Gospels, from, we might say, his literary criticism.

As Eagleton makes clear, Nietzsche is the first real atheist, but it’s worth noting that while Nietzsche hates Christianity, he has a particular fondness for Jesus. Nietzsche’s Jesus is not the Son of God or the Word made flesh. Nietzsche’s Jesus is a dim-witted man who spoke in metaphors that no one ever understood. Yes, Jesus brings glad tidings, but the “‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle – it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain.” Jesus is an overgrown child. Like a child, he tells stories to tell how he feels. It’s just that everyone has misunderstood the stories.

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Counter-typical thinking: Russia-Iran Division

Now that Russia has become enemy numero uno again, suspcion has fallen on their attitude toward Iran and the P5+1 negotiations to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons. But why would Russia, right next door to Iran (closer than Israel), want its islamic near-neighbor to have such weapons? Doesn't make sense.

Paul Pillar makes that obvious point. He goes on to speculate that Russia's hint that it might ratchet down its sanctions participation against Iran and begin trading could help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

His argument: "Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations....What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter...that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek."

In other words, the Iranians have to be convinced that the sanctions are not finally for the purpose of regime change (the goal of some U.S. policy makers and congress men/women).

The Singing Nun Is Singing A New Song

Sr. Cristina Scucchia of the Sisters of the Holy Family rocked the house and wowed the judges on the Italian edition of "The Voice" with her cover of Alicia Keys' chart-topping 2007 hit, "No One".

(Check out the reactions of the judges, especially at 1:04.)

 

Pope names members of Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Pope Francis has named the first eight members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he announced last December. Half are women. Five are laypeople. Two are Jesuits (one of them was formed in Argentina by the pope himself). One is a cardinal--Sean O'Malley--and he's the only American. Here they are:

Dr. Catherine Bonnet (France)
Mrs. Marie Collins (Ireland)
Prof. the Baroness Sheila Hollins (UK)
Card. Sean Patrick O’Malley  (U.S.A.)
Prof. Claudio Papale (Italy)
Her Excellency Hanna Suchocka (Poland)
Rev. Humberto Miguel Yañez, SJ (Argentina)
Rev. Hans Zollner, SJ (Germany)

They will be tasked with writing the "statutes" of the commission, and more members will be added at a later date. In a statement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, explained that the commission "will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large."

Brief bios (except Bonnet's) from the Holy See Press Office after the jump.

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Talking with Cardinal O'Malley

On Wednesday I was part of a panel discussion on the occasion of Pope Francis's one-year anniversary, featuring Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, moderated by Ken Woodward, and hosted by the American Bible Society. It was really more of a group interview than a discussion -- after Cardinal O'Malley spoke about the spiritual side of Francis's papacy, the other panelists, Matt Malone of America and Rusty Reno of First Things, and I took turns asking him questions but didn't talk much to each other (not onstage, anyway).

If you were there, thank you! I spoke to a lot of audience members afterward and truly enjoyed meeting you all. For those who couldn't make it, if I find out about a recording or a transcript of the event, I will certainly let you know. In the meantime I am grateful to Beth Griffin's report for Catholic News Service for capturing the highlights.

The Cardinal, as one of the eight men named by Pope Francis to his personal advisory council, is very well positioned to give an insider's view of Francis's plans. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he was, for the most part, too discreet to do so. I put to him some of the questions that were on my mind and yours: I noted that many people, including myself, were disappointed with the pope's recent remarks on the sex-abuse crisis in that he did not make any reference to the question of accountability for bishops and administrators who mishandled cases of abuse, despite the role that lack of accountability has played in the scandal and in damaging the church's credibility. So, I asked Cardinal O'Malley, do you have any sense of whether that issue is on the pope's radar (I think that's how I put it), and what he might plan to do about it? His answer, as Griffin transcribes it:

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Ganswein unbound.

In a new interview with German television, Archbishop Georg Ganswein broke a bit of news. First he revealed that Pope Francis asked his predecessor to comment on the text of the interview he gave to the world's Jesuit publications last summer. Francis had Ganswein -- who acts both as the prefect of the papal household and as personal secretary to Benedict XVI -- deliver the document to the retired pope, along with one blank sheet of paper on which to record his responses. "Three days later Benedict handed me four pages of reflections, notes, and supplements concerning certain questions -- things one might go into in more detail elsewhere -- most interesting -- but I’m not of course going to reveal them. I then took this booty back to the Pope," according to Ganswein. Remind me never to give that guy any private correspondence.

But Ganswein didn't stop there. In the same interview, he also mentioned that Francis was not his choice to succeed Benedict. "I had favored other candidates," he said. "I was wrong -- but then so were other people.” Pope Francis may be fawned over by the media, he continued, “but that won’t always be the case.” Sounds ominous. The pope is not “everybody’s darling," he added -- in English.

This isn't the first time Ganswein has popped off about the pope (the current pontiff, not the "hidden from the world" one).

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