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Over & Out

It was all an accident. My mother was not born Catholic, but Lutheran, Missouri Synod. When it came time to decide which tradition I would be raised in, my parents decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for me to get the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest. That’s what my paternal grandmother—devout Irish Catholic that she was—would want, they reasoned. No one dared to rouse her secret temper. So Catholic I would be. As my mom and grandma were washing dishes after my baptism party, the Catholic turned to the Lutheran and asked, “Honey, why did you have Grant baptized Catholic? You’re the one who goes to church.”

Apparently my mom took that comment to heart, because when it came time for me to go off to school, my parents sent me to a Lutheran preschool, and then for kindergarten to another Lutheran school. It was called Our Savior, and my child mind reckoned that was the place you sent your kids after you had saved up enough money.  I was still working on my soteriology.

Of all my school supplies, I was proudest of my Popeye folder. It was no mere paper-holder. A comic strip was printed on its front and back covers. Every day, I smuggled a comic book disguised as folder—into school, school. About a week after I started kindergarten, my teacher noticed that I could read. I was rewarded by being dragged before the first-graders, plopped down in a too-tall chair, and, made to read to them, accompanied only by the silent metronomes of my swinging legs. Doubtless the highlight of their academic year. Eventually my teacher suggested to my parents that I transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Paul of the Cross, where she thought I’d receive a better education.

They took that advice to heart too. So off I went to St. Paul’s—just a few years after Peter Steinfels darkened its doors, I might add. It was a convivial place. First graders fortunate to have Miss Sullivan (Ms. hadn’t quite come into wide use in Chicagoland), and speedy enough to finish their Friday book reports early, were granted exclusive access to the carpeted play area in the front of the classroom. There were puzzles. Books. And the only thing anyone really cared about: a huge bucket of popsicle sticks. Dave and Eric and I tended to be the the speediest students in the room. One Friday morning, we burned through our book reports, grabbed the bin of popsicle sticks, and went to work on a modest work of art. On the dark brown carpeting, we arranged dozens of beige popsicle sticks in the shape of a mermaid. An anatomically correct mermaid. Miss Sullivan was amused, but not pleased. No more popsicle sticks for us, for at least a week.

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Bishop Barron's Evolving Tolerance

Intervening on the Douthat controversy, Bishop Robert Barron has urged his fellow Catholics to recognize that the Church has always been a place of great controversy--and pleads with us all for more engagement with and tolerance of each other's ideas. In an essay entitled, "Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy," he writes: "The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable."  Nice.  Broad-minded. 

Mmm. Just for kicks, I googled "Barron" and "Dowd." And the google was not disappointed. It highlighted an essay entitled "Why It's Okay to Be Against Heresy and For Imposing One's Views on Others"--right next to a picture of Maureen Dowd. While many columnists don't write their own column titles, I think it is safe to attribute this title to Bishop Barron, since it's on his own website.

His view toward open-minded discussion is not quite the same in the older essay, at least on the surface. Barron writes: "The Catholic Church is not a Voltairean debating society; it is a community that stands for some very definite things, which implies, necessarily, that it sets its back against very definite things."

What's changed? I like to think it's the grace of office. 

Ross Douthat, Vatican II Catholic

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is both a political conservative and a self-described “orthodox” Catholic. Very orthodox. Really, really, orthodox. At least in the abstract. Less so, he winningly admits, in temperament. Nevertheless, he has taken great exception to the direction in which Pope Francis, that wily Jesuit, is taking the church. Douthat is especially distressed over the Synod on the Family and the pope’s advocacy for some reform that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment to receive Communion. He thinks making accommodations to the “sexual revolution” will more or less destroy the church. He goes further, suggesting that those in favor of such reforms are flirting with…well, heresy. He’s coy about employing the term, but his meaning is clear.

His October 18 column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” went so far as to cast doubt on Pope Francis’s and Cardinal Walter Kasper’s fidelity to church teaching. Douthat is certain that what Jesus said about divorce requires little interpretation, and that the church’s teaching in this area is unchanging, unambiguous, and absolute. In making that case, Douthat seems willfully blind to the accommodations the church has made for marital failure with both the Petrine and Pauline privileges and in the annulment process. If Jesus’s teaching on marriage is so obvious, one could add, why did it take the church a thousand years to conclude that marriage was a sacrament? Finally, if the church over time came to embrace that development of doctrine, why is any further development out of bounds?

Douthat’s unfortunate column has prompted some prominent Catholic theologians and scholars to issue a statement questioning his “professional qualifications” for writing about such technical doctrinal and theological questions. Several of the authors and signatories to the statement are valued contributors to Commonweal. We sympathize with their exasperation with how Douthat presents the conservative take on these questions as the only “orthodox” position. The Catholic tradition is larger and more multifarious than Douthat imagines, or wishes to imagine. His suggestion that those who favor reform are simply betraying the tradition and Protestantizing the church is especially troubling.

But we must disagree with Douthat’s critics on whether he has standing to comment on these controversies or advocate forcefully for his view. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been the right of lay Catholics to make their voices heard even on doctrinal and theological controversies. Indeed, it must be said that Douthat’s engagement with Catholicism is far more nuanced and better informed than that of Frank Bruni or Maureen Dowd, two more liberal Catholics who often comment on Catholicism for the Times.   

In a recent lecture on the crisis of conservative Catholicism brought on by this papacy, Douthat pronounced the Second Vatican Council a failure. Yet it was that “failed” gathering of bishops that urged Catholic laypersons such as Douthat to take active responsibility for the church. Douthat is more of a Vatican II Catholic than he suspects. In that same talk, Douthat admitted that conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine. At the very least, he said, there needs to be a conservative answer to John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. Not really. Judge Noonan’s book is a conservative case for doctrinal development.

New Stories on the Homepage

Right now we’re featuring two new pieces on the homepage.

Robert Mickens, in his first post-synod Letter from Rome, looks at the importance Pope Francis places on his role not just as Bishop of Rome but as Primate of Italy. There’s a not-to-be-overlooked significance to this, Mickens writes, especially given new and “surprising” episcopal appointments to the major archdioceses of Bologna and Palermo.

You can talk about living in a universal and globalized church all you like, but the reality is that its Italian component is still the engine that drives the train. [Pope Francis] knows this. And that’s why he’s making exerted efforts to change the mentality and complexion of its hierarchy…. [P]erhaps the real issue now is to see that how Pope Francis is shaping the Church in Italy – especially through episcopal appointments – may be a good indication of how he hopes to shape it in other parts of the world, too. At least, that’s what many are hoping.

Read the latest Letter from Rome here.

Also, the editors comment on the “real achievement” of the just-concluded Synod on the Family, “the reinvigoration of the synodal process itself, one in which bishops feel free to speak their minds, to disagree with one another, and even to explore the possibility that reform is essential to the church’s evangelical mission.” The synod, Francis said,

was about opening “closed hearts” and dispensing with the “superiority and superficiality” with which some approach “difficult cases and wounded families.” He dismissed “conspiracy theories” about the synod, and implored bishops to move beyond formulas “encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” In defending the family against “ideological and individualist assaults,” he emphasized that the church’s “first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.” Catholics must guard against the self-righteousness of the prodigal son’s jealous elder brother.

In ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the synod process, Francis laid out a vision for the fulfillment of the promises of the Second Vatican Council that was anything but ad hoc or confusing. The Synod of Bishops, he noted, “was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method.” This effort at collegial governance “is one of the most precious legacies” of the council. “Synod” literally means walking together, the pope pointed out, and that process of discernment includes all the baptized. The laity are not just recipients of church teaching, but have an active role in safeguarding the faith. It is the faith of the whole people of God, the sensus fidelium, that protects the church from error, Francis reminded the bishops. “How would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish?” the pope said. A “synodal church is a listening church.... It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.”

Read all of “Walking Together” here.

Frank Brennan, SJ, on "Why the Pope is not an Anti-Capitalist Greenie"

The distinguished Australian Jesuit Frank Brennan, SJ (whom Boston College had the pleasure of hosting during the academic year 2014-2015 as its Gasson Professor) has written a very insightful piece on the pope, the synod, and the letter from the twelve bishops. What I found particularly useful was his situating that letter in the context of past synods. 

  It is so good he is to be forgiven for being in a place where summer is just beginning, as his friends in Boston head into winter. (My puppy Ziva encountered frost this morning. She was not pleased). 

Bishops of the World Unite on Climate Change

After Pope Francis asked the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to work on an encyclical on the environment, Cardinal Turkson’s diligent-but-understaffed office scrambled to get him a draft by the end of last summer. They fully expected a release toward the end of last year. But Pope Francis sat on it. Part of the reason, it seems, is that he wanted to consult far and wide. But another part of the reason is that he always planned to issue it in 2015—to be able to influence COP21.

What is COP21? In classic bureaucrat-speak, it means the 21st annual meeting of the “Conference of the Parties” to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit when world leaders first united to address the terrifying consequence of man-made global warming. Specifically, the UNFCCC seeks to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This has been subsequently interpreted as keeping the rise in global mean temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold beyond which disaster seems inevitable.

Since the Rio summit all those years ago, the result has been….nothing. Nada. Zilch. We’ve kicked the can down the road so many times that there’s barely any road left. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls attention to this shameful inaction, this dereliction of our gravest duty. He says that by putting “national interests above the global common good”, the world is guilty of “failure of conscience and responsibility”.

He then adds: “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays”.

He is, of course, talking about COP21, which will take place in Paris in November/ December. Given the scale and speed of climate change, this is really the last chance for a serious agreement before the clocks runs out.

This is why heads of all continental associations of bishops conference—alongside the United States and Canada—have come together to sign an appeal to political leaders who will soon be gathering for COP21.

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The End Is the Beginning


ROME—Put away the tea leaves. After three weeks of argument, intrigue, and, yes, prayer, the fourteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops—comprising 270 clerics from around the world—has voted. Two-thirds of the synod fathers supported opening a path for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to fuller participation in the life of the church—including liturgically. In some countries, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot serve as lectors, catechists, or godparents.

In conversation with a priest, according to the synod’s final summary text, a person can become “conscious of [his or her] situation before God”—through the “internal forum.” This process, according to the text, may help a person discern what “prevents the possibility of fuller participation in the life of the church,” and to figure out what can be done to “make it [the participation] grow.” (In 1991, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled out the internal forum as a pathway for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion.)

The text does not specify whether this could result in a return to the Communion line. But, importantly, neither does it foreclose the possibility—something many synod fathers wanted to rule out. For weeks, those synod fathers had been arguing for a final relatio that closed the door on Communion for the divorced and remarried. They didn't win the day. The synod—which is a consultative body, not a deliberative one—could have sent Pope Francis a document that simply reaffirmed the current practice of barring the civilly remarried from the Eucharist. It didn’t. That’s important.

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Paul Ryan, the Right's Kind of Family Man

Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”

Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.

Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.

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Breakfast Dialectics

You know those exchanges with your child where you’re trying to make a point and your parental wisdom, impeccable though it might be, is not being embraced? Before you know it, you’ve landed in a gnarly little power struggle. In our family, the snafus tend to happen in the morning, when everyone is trying to eat, feed the dogs, get organized, and get going. Amid the melee patience wears thin, and a parent (well, this one anyway) can lose perspective.

A few weeks ago, my older sister was visiting when I had one of these minor blowouts with my nine-year old daughter. Larkin had dawdled and I was trying to get her out the door to school, when I saw that she had put on a pair of beat-up galoshes-like boots, in a dingy shade of purple, instead of her usual shoes. I told her to change them.

Why? she asked.

“They’re not school shoes,” I said. “They’re not even shoes. They look funky, and they’re too big for you, and they’re gonna be uncomfortable and probably too hot.”

“But I want to wear them. I got them at the tag sale last week and I love them!”

“Honey,” I said. “They’re not appropriate. You have a whole bunch of great shoes right here to choose from. Please take those off and wear something else.”

“But Dad. They are comfortable. And the only rule for shoes at school is closed toe. So they are appropriate. And I’m wearing them!”

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Schism Predictions, with Something to Offend Everyone

No, I'm not peddling Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories about plots in Rome, or speculating about the fallout from the nearly-concluded Synod on the Family. Instead I refer to one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. I won't try to summarize the novel, which follows the inventor of the ontological lapsometer, Dr. Tom More (!), as social chaos unfolds in the "dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A." Its opening pages are among the most immediately gripping I've read, and include this ornery depiction of a Church broken apart, noted below for your perusal:

Our Catholic church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.

The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin mass and plays The Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation.

The Dutch schismatics in this area comprise several priests and nuns who left Rome to get married. They threw in with the Dutch schismatic Catholics. Now several divorced priests and nuns are importuning the Dutch cardinal to allow them to remarry.

The Roman Catholics hereabouts are scattered and demoralized. The one priest, an obscure curate, who remained faithful to Rome, could not support himself and had to hire out as a fire-watcher. It is his job to climb the fire tower by night and watch for brushfires below and for signs and portents in the skies.

I, for example, am a Roman Catholic, albeit a bad one. I believe in the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, in God the Father, in the election of the Jews, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who founded the Church on Peter his first vicar, which will last until the end of the world. Some years ago, however, I stopped eating Christ in Communion, stopped going to mass, and have since fallen into a disorderly life. I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.

Attentive readers of the novel might recall a rather critical reference to Commonweal also found in its pages, which good manners prevent me from reproducing here.

"A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae" by Holly Wiegman

There are many acomplished and faith-filled Catholic women writing about how adherence to Church teaching against contraception enhances their faith and family lives. But we didn't hear as much from practicing Catholics who use contraception about how their choices affects their faith and family lives. In my view, the lack of  such voices leads to an unbalanced conversation, since the vast majority of married Catholics do in fact choose to use artificial birth control. 

Holly Wiegman's essay, which you will find below, helps remedy the lack of conversational balance. She is a freelance writer who lives with her husband in New York. Active in her local parish, she cherishes the rich traditions and diverse community of the Catholic Church.


A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae

Holly Wiegman

The issue of birth control no longer affects my husband and me: at 52 years old I have officially entered my menopausal years.  Yet I still remember with frustration the discussion I had with a priest a number of years ago.  He stated that under certain circumstances abortion could be condoned, but that birth control never could be.  He gave the example of a mother who has four children and becomes pregnant for the fifth time.  If the pregnancy puts her life at risk, her death would have a great toll on the children already born as well as her husband.  In such a case, the mother could choose to abort and be at peace with her decision.  Having carried two children to term at that point, I realized how traumatic such a decision would be: how could any woman be at peace when choosing between her life and the life of her unborn child?  So I asked the obvious question of why the woman could not use contraception to prevent pregnancy and thus never have to make such a devastating choice.  The priest insisted that contraception was not okay under any circumstances.  You mean, I pressed, that a woman in those circumstances should keep having abortions each time she conceives, rather than just prevent pregnancies? Yes, indeed.  That is the formal response I received from this priest, who held an official post regarding ethics in my diocese at the time.

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Synod critics lack historical context

I had decided not to write about the synod on the family. There are a lot of people far more qualified than me discussing it, and—in sharp contrast with the merchants of doom announcing schism or the end of civilization—I actually don’t think it is that important in the larger scheme of things. I’d much rather let the Holy Spirit do his work, and talk about Laudato Si’, the throwaway culture, and the economy of exclusion.

Yet I find some of the recent debate perplexing. I’m not talking about the disgraceful attacks on Pope Francis by those very prelates who used to put such a high premium on loyalty to the pope, or the petty conspiracy theories. No, I’m talking about the really limited historical context on display, especially by the critics who reject any openings toward pastoral flexibility.

This lack of context stretches across both time and space. Much of the historical analysis begins and ends with Vatican II, with the world divided into “conservatives” who prioritize unchanged truth and “liberals” who prioritize mercy and meeting people where they are. This also fits neatly (too neatly) with the very western political dynamic, especially in the US. But it’s too narrow a perspective. While a lot of people are looking back 50 years, very few are looking back 300 years, to the debates about Jansenism. Seen from this broader historical perspective, the position of the “conservatives” might appear less a defense of orthodoxy than a flirtation with Jansenism—especially by stressing that salvation comes from moral rigorism and rigid adherence to rules and norms.

Is it too surprising that the Jansenist impulse is alive and kicking? Again, from a historical perspective, it shouldn’t be. Arianism survived for centuries after Nicaea. Monophysitism survived for centuries after Chalcedon. It’s not too surprising, then, that we see traces of Jansenism a mere three centuries after Clement XI’s Unigenitus! Nor is it surprising that this is especially pronounced in places like the US or Australia, areas that were once heavily influenced by the Irish Church (I would argue that what lost all credibility in Ireland was less the Catholic Church than the Jansenist caricature of it). And in the US, a lot of the most vehement opposition is coming from converts—converts from Calvinist forms of Christianity.

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A Nobel Prize for Catholic Social Thought?

The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)

Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:

When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”

To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.

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Split Decisions

ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.

At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.

This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.

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An Heir to Both Stevens & Pound

Are you Team Pound or Team Stevens? It’s a question that readers of modern poetry often end up asking themselves. All would agree that both Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are important to the history of modern poetry; that, without The Cantos and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” without “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Plain Sense of Things,” modern poetry would be a fundamentally different thing. But agreeing on a poet’s importance doesn’t mean agreeing on a poet’s value, and, as Marjorie Perloff and other critics have noted, lovers of Pound tend not to be lovers of Stevens and vice versa.

Moreover, choosing sides here seems to express something more than mere personal preference. Do you believe that poetry is about subjectivity and the imagination? That it speaks not so much to the world as to “the delicatest ear of the mind,” as Stevens put it? That, in other words, poetry is the self speaking to the self about the self? Then you’re probably on Team Stevens, along with Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and others. Or do you believe that poetry is about hard surfaces and sharp angles, about particulars rather than essences or types? And that it should—indeed, must—include not just the self but also history and politics and economics? Then you’re probably on Team Pound—and a venerable team it is, counting Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie among its members. To love both Pound and Stevens is akin to loving both the Yankees and the Red Sox: it’s possible, but not particularly likely.*

Lawrence Joseph, whose “In Parentheses” appears in the current issue of Commonweal, is one of the rare poets—really the only one I can think of—whose work belongs to the traditions of both Pound and Stevens. Joseph has been hailed as one of the great poets of post-9/11 America, and rightly so. His most recent collection, Into It (2005), charted the serious damage done by America’s endless wars—damage done to those we’ve invaded and to ourselves. In “Rubaiyat,” for instance, we see soldiers, aided by digital cameras and the Pentagon’s Military Diaries Project, turning horror into home movies: “soldiers starring in their own / war movies, training digital cameras // on themselves—a child is put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine. / Politics? Personified.” Joseph trains our eyes to see politics personified—to remember the particular, real, and mangled bodies that are elided beneath the abstract label of the War on Terror. The child’s body is mangled, and so too is America’s politics and its soul. War begets war, violence begets violence, and our war footing now seems permanent: “Cyberwar and permanent / war, Third Wave War, neocortical war, / Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch / War …”

Yet what I want to focus on isn’t Joseph’s strength as a poet of war and its aftermaths, although his strength as such is considerable. Rather, I want to talk about how Joseph’s work bridges the gap between two very different conceptions of modern poetry: the meditative, self-interrogating poetry of Stevens and the fractured, history-interrogating poetry of Pound.

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Lecturing the Lecturer

A quietly provocative op-ed in the Times asks, “Are College Lectures Unfair?” Its author, journalist Annie Murphy Paul, pulls together several strands of research to argue that as a form of education, the lecture may be “biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent.”

The question being addressed is not whether lectures belong in college, whether they’re efficient or not, or cost-effective, or obsolete in this online age of Massive Open Online Courses. Not any of that, but rather whether the lecture format itself – developed over centuries and installed at the heart of Western models of higher education – favors some groups and/or types of students over others; whether it is inherently, structurally invidious. Ms. Paul writes:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

Accordingly Paul advocates pedagogical approaches that de-emphasize lectures in favor of what she calls “active learning.” The “supports” she mentions as part of this approach include frequent quizzes; online “checkup” testing on key concepts before class, and various other methods of feedback and reinforcement deployed to help students “become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.” Well, who wouldn’t benefit from that? Indeed, Paul cites research showing that all students do benefit -- but that “women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

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Magister, No

ROME—In the beginning was the letter. And the letter was published. By Sandro Magister, longtime Vaticanista, sometime critic of this papacy, and current insinuator of the idea that one of those responsible for leaking the text may be the most famous resident of Casa Santa Marta.

Last week, Magister published a letter sent by several cardinals to Pope Francis, criticizing the synod process for favoring those who want to change church practice on a range of contested issues. The letter, which was sent to the pope before the synod began, received a direct response when Francis delivered an unscheduled address on the second day of the proceedings. He reminded the synod fathers that he had personally approved of the synod process, and urged them not to fall victim to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” (That memorable line was amusingly interpreted by the camptastically named “Xavier Rynne II”—who has been aiming his firehose of verbiage at the goings-on here since the synod began. And by George if he doesn’t think the pope’s phrase wasn’t really referring to those who have been hoping for some change out of this meeting. XR2 assures that the leak “certainly did not involve the Holy Father.” So that’s a relief.)

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'He Came Not for the Healthy'

Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.

First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?

I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Has the Synod Turned a Corner?

ROME—Hoping to see a resolution to the most neuralgic issues being debated at the Synod of the Family by the time it ends next weekend? Don’t hold your breath. That’s the message that came through during today’s briefing at the Holy See Press Office. While “there is confidence” among the synod fathers that “something can emerge from this process of fermentation,” according to Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, there is no consensus on questions related to Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexuality, and others living in “irregular relationships.”

That makes it highly unlikely that the final summary document, which synod fathers will vote on—paragraph by paragraph—later this week, will include definitive language on any of the contested issues. That doesn’t mean Pope Francis won’t step in at some point—my money is on a post-synodal study commission—and it certainly doesn’t mean that these three weeks of discernment have been a waste. To the contrary, as Francis made clear in his remarks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the synod on Saturday, the synodality established by this meeting of bishops is a preview of what he wants to see from the whole church. “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing.” He continued: “It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Synoding is hard work—this has been a constant refrain of all the synod fathers who have appeared at the press conferences. And who could doubt it? It’s not unusual for participants to put in twelve-hour days. Coleridge spoke of a sense of “weariness” among the synod fathers. “I have a strong sense that we wonder how we’re going to get through to Sunday morning [when the synod concludes]—how we’re going to write a final document.”

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