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Cardinal Wuerl Has Had Enough

ROME—In an interview with America magazine, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., makes it clear that he is having none of the agitation against Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family. Nothing has been “rigged.” Nothing has been “manipulated.” Rather, the cardinal approves of this synod process, which is much more open than any other anyone can remember. “I see it as widening the participation of the bishops (compared to the past),” the cardinal said. He reiterated many of the same points in his interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

As for those who have been critical of this synod, he told Gerard O’Connell:

There are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality.

What about those who suggest the pope has been puppet-mastering the whole shebang?

I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

O’Connell asked what the cardinal thought would come out of the synod:

I think that right now there has been so much tainting of how the synod is being seen. I don’t think the process has been tainted, I don’t think the synod itself has been tainted, but the lens through which it is being seen by many, many people has been tainted, and so I suspect that that will have some impact. It’s not going to be a long term impact because you can only paint something in false tones and have it remain understood incorrectly for so long, after a while the church wins out.  The great maxim—magna est veritas et semper prevalebit—the truth is great and it always wins out, even with all of this propaganda and all of this distortion.

Cardinal Wuerl is no radical. He is speaking for himself, of course, but he’s been around for a while. He has attended many synods—and held a primary leadership role in the 2012 synod. He knows of what he speaks. No doubt the cardinal is giving voice to the frustration of many other synod fathers. Is he hedging against a possible no-result? I don’t think so, not after Pope Francis’s remember-I’m-the-pope speech yesterday (which sounded a lot like the one he gave last year, just before he appointed a commission to study the question of the annulment process, which he eventually reformed). Cardinal Wuerl may have just reset the table for the synod’s most important work—which begins tomorrow. 

Is There an End Game in the Middle East?

The wars in Syria and Yemen along with the continuing battle in Iraq between the government and ISIS have no end in sight. Attention to Russian intervention in Syria tends to obscure the tumult everywhere else. Charles Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the George H.W. Bush administration, offers a broad survey of the region, its history since the Gulf War, and U.S. ME policy since 1991. Here are the concluding paragraphs of his talk to the U.S.-Arab Policymakers Conference on October 15.

As refugees overwhelm Europe and both Asad and Da’esh continue to hold their own against the forces arrayed against them, the world is moving toward the conclusion that any outcome in Syria – any outcome at all – that can stop the carnage is better than its continuation.  The ongoing disintegration of the Fertile Crescent fuels extremism; empowers Iran; drives Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria together; weakens the strategic position of the GCC; vexes Turkey; and leaves the United States on a strategic treadmill.  The region seems headed, after still more tragedy and bloodshed, toward an unwelcome inevitability – the eventual acknowledgment of Iran’s hegemony in Iraq and Syria and political influence in Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen.  That is not where Americans and our Gulf Arab friends imagined we would end up twenty-five years after liberating Kuwait from Iraqi aggression.  But it is where protracted strategic incoherence has brought us.  We can no longer avoid considering whether an opening to Iran is not the key to peace and stability in the Middle East.

Whatever our answer to that question, the seventy-year-old partnership between Americans and Gulf Arabs has never faced more or greater challenges than at present.  We will not surmount these challenges if we do not both learn from our mistakes and work together to cope with the unpalatable realities they have created.  Doing so will require intensified dialogue between us, imagination, and openness to novel strategic partnerships and alignments.  There are new realities in the Middle East.  It does no good to deny or rail against them.  We must now adjust to them and strive to turn them to our advantage.

Previous efforts to discuss the ME here at dotCommonweal have not been very productive or, at points, even rational. I will open comments on Monday evening hoping that those interested will actually read Freeman's talk, "America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East,"  and speak to the points he makes and the issues he raises. And, of course, it can be read without any need to make comments.  

10/19: Comments open. No bullies, no trolls, no hysterics. You will be deleted.

Synod Sounds

ROME—The Holy See Press Office has taken to holding two-part press conferences, which is great if you want to hear more voices explaining what’s happening inside the synod hall, but not so great if you want lots of time for Q & A. Yesterday was one such presser. First we had reports on the synod fathers’ various interventions, and then we heard a couple of “fraternal delegates” to the synod—that is, representatives of non-Catholic religious communities.

So, what’s happening inside the aula? Discussions are becoming “more emotional,” according to one Vatican spokesperson. There’s been a slight shift from earlier interventions. The synod fathers are hearing about a very wide range of issues, including Humanae vitae, violence between Christians and Catholics (was this a reference to Ukraine? Unclear), the suffering of childless couples, adoption, intrafamily violence, families displaced by migration, care of the elderly, who often suffer isolation and a feeling of uselessness that leads to suicide, families torn by sexual abuse, “the martyrdom of silence in many families where incest has taken place.” The synod fathers also heard interventions about sexual education. One urged the church to resist the dominant, “disastrous” secular model of sex-ed. It should present its teachings as a pathway of love, not sin.

Some synod fathers spoke at length about Pope Francis’s reform of the annulment process (it’s speedier now, and less expensive). Others shared personal experiences of ministering to couples, recounting the experience of being formed by the husbands and wives they had set out to form. It’s easy for bishops to be drawn into the sense of being in control, one synod father said in the aula, as though they are the only ones to impart knowledge. But, he continued, ministry with couples always involves mutual enrichment.

At the heart of the synod, according to one participant, is human sexuality. He acknowledged that most bishops don’t know how to talk about it because they’re celibate. This is why married couples are essential to the discussion. And indeed, the synod fathers heard from some—Sharron Cole, a former board member of a natural family planning organization, even pressed them to reconsider Humanae vitae.

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Two New Books on Catholic Social Teaching

Just to a quick note to mention two interesting new books on Catholic social teaching on the shelves. The first is by Daniel Schwindt, and is titled Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis - the subtitle is “Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’.” I believe Daniel’s is the first attempt to incorporate Pope Francis’s vital contribution into a general treatise on the social doctrine—the publication date was June 19, a day after the encyclical was published! (Full disclosure: Daniel edited a book earlier this year called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis; an Anthology of Visions for the Future, and I contribute a chapter.)

The second book to cross my desk is the latest by Angus Sibley, entitled Catholic Economics: Alternatives to the Jungle. It was published too late to include insights from Laudato Si’, but Sibley is always worth reading. I especially enjoyed his last book: The Poisoned Spring of Economic Libertarianism.

Bravo to both authors, and let’s hope we are entering a new springtime for authentic Catholic social teaching!

Why the Synod Will Fail

Tom Reese gives five reasons.  What do you think?  What should one do?

Synod Snapshots

ROME—The bells of St. Peter’s tell me that it’s 8 a.m. The traffic on the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri, the six-lane thoroughfare that bends along the Vatican’s southern wall where it meets Paul VI Audience Hall—where synod meets—tells me that it’s rush hour. The calendar tells me that nearly two weeks of this General Synod on the Family are in the books. All anybody wants to tell me is that they have no idea whether, when the whole shindig wraps next Sunday, the bishops will have anything to show for it.

We the media honestly have no idea. We learn what we learn from interviews with synod fathers, from three-minute speeches some release to the public, from near-daily Holy See press briefings, which sometimes feature a bishop or two, and satellite press conferences that may or may not actually be press conferences.

I’m thinking of the one called by Voice of the Family, a pop-up activist supergroup intent on holding the line on any and all church doctrine and discipline regarding the family. Somehow they got press credentials for last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family (as did several other activists); this year, it seems, not so much. Yesterday morning VOF managed to fill an upper room at the Hotel Columbus, just off St. Peter’s Square, with a bunch of journalists hoping to catch some news from the headliner: Cardinal Raymond Burke. The cardinal spent much of the 2014 synod, and the year between that meeting and this one, resisting any change in church practice. So, as expected, when reporters had finished sitting through the undercard—which presented so close a reading of the synod’s working document as to determine that, in the words of one speaker, one of its paragraphs constituted a “direct attack on parental rights” that is “opposed to Catholic teaching”—and the main event, which was generally much calmer, they wanted to ask the cardinal some questions.

But the organizers wouldn’t have it.

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Scoring Last Night's Democratic Debate

If you weren’t a convinced Hillary Clinton supporter before last night's Democratic debate, her performance shouldn't have made you one.

Perhaps you only caught the last few minutes of it, when Clinton noted that the biggest enemy she made in her public life has been – wait for it – Republicans. (Others gave that honor to the coal industry or the NRA.) Or maybe you noticed, in her closing statement, that Clinton actually intoned the substance-free lines, "If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead." This after moderator Anderson Cooper asked her if she was ready to take a position on legalizing marijuana (an issue being considered in Nevada, where the debate was held) and she confessed – honestly at least – that she wasn't. Suddenly, it seemed, Clinton had discovered the virtues of federalism! And for those of you who embrace the national security state, Clinton's standing by her Patriot Act vote should be reassuring.

Is it fair to mention these especially unimpressive answers? Not entirely – Clinton did her homework, and was better on the stage than I remembered. I find Hillary Derangement Syndrome puzzling, and don't agree with her more vociferous critics. I understand her political virtues, which are not unsubstantial. But I couldn't really compile a similar list of evasions and poll-tested pablum for the other Democratic candidates. If the word triangulation makes you queasy, all those reminders from Clinton about how the Republicans were so much worse probably weren't reassuring. And I can’t really fathom an informed viewer believing Clinton when she asserted, “I went to Wall Street in December 2007, before the big crash that we had, and I basically said 'cut it out!’” I mean, has a Clinton ever spoken truth to money?

Putting aside the above criticisms, though, Clinton avoided major mistakes.

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Adults Meet and Debate—like Adults

I was pleasantly surprised at how well all the Dems came off last night at their first debate.

I was also surprised to read this headline in the NYTimes print edition: Hillary Clinton Turns up Heat on Bernie Sanders in a sharp debate.

But then, in this morning's e-summary from the Times there was this: "A Nuanced Stage Fight with Several Palpable Hits."

Perhaps they are not totally contradictory (for headlines), but I thought it was an intelligent, lively debate; even Anderson Cooper did a good job. You know, the kind of political debate that adults should have. I did eliminate two candidates that I have looked at; three still in the running as far as I'm concerned. And you? Who didn't watch the baseball game!

Apologies (Almost) All Around

ROME—A couple of quick developments before the daily press briefing, where reports from the synod's small-group discussions will be distributed.

First, before Pope Francis began his Wednesday catechesis, he offered a mysterious apology: “In the name of the church, I ask forgiveness for the scandals that recently have occurred in Rome and at the Vatican.” Then he delivered an address on the “scandal” of breaking the promise to love our children. “Jesus taught us to become like little children; in protecting our children, and protecting the family, may we keep the great promise which God has given to us in them, an through them, to our human family,” Francis said.

So what was Francis apologizing for? Take your pick: The sexual-abuse scandal (as he did in Philadelphia)? The leak of a letter criticizing the synod process signed by who-knows-how-many cardinals, which Cardinal Müller* recently compared to the Vatileaks scandal (more on that in a moment)? The Polish priest who announced he was in a relationship with another man—and that there are many more like him—on the eve of the synod? The Polish priest who had been spokesman for World Youth Day until it came to light that he had fathered a child? The absurdly ostentatious funeral for an alleged mafia boss? The financial scandals of the Vatican Bank? It could be any of these, or others (see John Thavis’s blog), or all. But the fact that Francis offered so general a mea culpa could indicate his frustration with the drip-drip of stories that make it look like little has changed since Benedict’s Vatican fell under the shadow of scandal.

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Process & Reality

Updates below.

ROME—In one of my favorite scenes from the Mel Brooks classic, History of the World: Part I (there was no second part), Moses descends from Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s laws, carrying not two but three stone tablets. “I have these fifteen”—he announces, just as one tablet crashes to the ground—“oy…ten commandments!” That came to mind as the day’s major synod news—that thirteen cardinals had signed a letter to the pope more or less calling the entire process into question—went from looking like a potential threat to Francis’s project to a strange episode that could leave the synod’s critics looking disorganized.

To those of you who haven’t been playing along at home, a recap: Early this morning, veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister—who lost his Holy See press credential for leaking a late, but not final draft of Laudato si’—reported that thirteen cardinals, several with senior positions in the Vatican, signed a letter criticizing key features of the synodal process. According to Magister, the list included Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Müller, and Cardinal Napier, among others. High-energy church observers such as Damian Thompson soon announced that the synod was on the verge of a breakdown: “The seniority of the signatories shows how close the church is to civil war.” But reports of the synod’s collapse appear to have been exaggerated. Because by late this afternoon, four of the thirteen alleged signatories had denied signing the letter: Cardinals Erdő, Piacenza Scola, and Vingt-Trois.

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Now Live, Our Fall Books Issue

Our Fall Books issue is live, and right now we’re featuring Marilynne Robinson’s “Awakening,” an essay excerpted from her soon-to-be-published collection of new writing, The Givenness of Things. Robinson writes she has come to realize that, after America’s First and Second Great Awakenings, there followed a third in the latter half of the twentieth century. “[What] I would call the third great awakening was led by the black church,” she writes, “and sooner or later had the support of all the major denominations. But it was not, and is not, understood as an essentially religious movement, though, as I have said the distinction between civic and religious is never clear, and was certainly not clear in this case.” She continues:

I was in high school and college when the civil-rights movement emerged. That was a very troubled time, and it was for me a deeply important education. I came from a strongly conservative background. I can truly say that I was schooled in generosity and optimism by the great movements of that period. I understood them as an essential America bursting the bonds that had distorted and constrained it. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Nothing has ever persuaded me to think less of these movements or otherwise about them. Therefore the fact that they seem sometimes to be at risk of following precursor movements into collapse and oblivion alarms and appalls me. The word “liberal” has been effectively stigmatized, as the word “abolitionist” was and is. As if generosity were culpable. As if there were some more reasonable response to slavery than to abolish it. As I write, the Voting Rights Act is being challenged before the Supreme Court. If American civil religion can be said to have a congregation, I was a member in good standing—until certain shifts became apparent in the meaning and effect of religion in America. These changes made me realize that I had indeed allowed my culture to instruct me in my religion—to my benefit, during a period that was singularly worthy of the confidence I placed in it. This is to say, it was worthy as other periods, quite reliably, are not.

You can read the whole thing here.

Also in our Fall Books issue: Jonathan Stevenson’s profile of the late Robert Stone, author of “big, political novels—novels of ideas whose protagonists seek to put those ideas into action, and usually get them wrong when they try.” Plus, Rand Richards Cooper reviews Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, Paul Moses discusses a new biography of political journalist (and Commonweal Catholic) Mary McGrory, and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly writes on security checks at events during the recent papal visit to the United States--and what the willingness to wait in long lines says about our acceptance of the authority of the security state. Of course, there’s more, which you can see in the full table of contents.

Whose Synod Is It, Anyway?

ROME—Previously, at the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops:

Last Monday, in remarks opening this three-week meeting on issues related to family life, Pope Francis urged the two hundred seventy synod fathers to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, to allow themselves to be "guided by God who always surprises, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent.”

Moments later, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, the synod’s general relator, delivered a seven-thousand-word address that, in part, urged the assembly not to be guided by arguments for readmitting some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. “The integration of the divorced and remarried in the life of the ecclesial community can take many forms, [but that] is different from admission to the Eucharist,” he said. He ruled out the “law of graduality,” used by some to discuss how the church might talk about couples in “irregular relationships.” Gradualism holds that moral decision-making develops over time. “We cannot always have 100 percent,” as Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German bishops conference put it during last year’s synod.

Erdő disagrees with that approach. “Between truth and falsehood, between good and bad, there is no graduality,” he said last Monday. Likewise, Erdő ruled out comparing traditional marriage with gay relationships: “There is no basis for comparing or making analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for matrimony and the family.” As for those who frame the challenges facing families as primarily questions of circumstance—war, poverty, environmental degradation—Erdő thinks something more important is working against traditional marriage: “anthropological change,” that is, moral relativism. The cardinal’s speech, described by some as conservatives’ “first strike” at this synod, seemed designed to shut down the more progressive proposals—which included not only a possible opening to some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but also the idea of finding more welcoming ways of speaking about gay people—that came up during last year’s synod. The mere discussion of such proposals occasioned a good deal of public pushback during the year between the two synods—from lay observers and bishops alike, including cardinals who are participating in the synod discussions. Something resembling a conspiracy theory emerged. Had the pope rigged the synod, as Edward Pentin suggested?

Pope Francis seemed to answer that question last Tuesday.

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Sex and the Synod

What is the Synod on the Family really about? At First Things, R.R. Reno suggests an answer: "the underlying issue is Catholicism’s relation to the sexual revolution." Reno ranges widely in the article, and while I don’t want to simplify his position, this passage stands out as a useful summary of it:

The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in ­practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It ­allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.

Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.

I think it’s possible to bracket, if for a moment, whatever particular disagreements I might have with Reno and ponder the above as a style of thinking. Consider the abstract quality of the term “sexual revolution”: It stands in for concrete issues like divorced and remarried Catholics’ ability to take Communion, or the roles women are permitted to have in the church. It removes the human element from all these situations. (Reno briefly mentions divorced Catholics and gay culture, and gestures at "the sexual free-for-all" unleashed by the sexual revolution, but largely avoids particulars, at least in this article.) The sexual revolution is invoked almost as a monolith we must either accept or reject; the effect is to obscure the particular realities Catholics are facing with a shorthand code for moral chaos, perversion, and hedonism. 

This especially matters because it is in the actual lives of those who faced longstanding discrimination that we see the sexual revoluton's complexity—and its necessity.

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Mirth à la Mode

At the risk of philistinism, I’m going to indulge in some casual fun about high fashion, some mirth at la mode.

Did you happen to catch last week’s roundup of the newest from the fashion runways of Paris? Browsing through what presumably represents the best of the world’s best designers, I found myself at a loss for words (well, for a few minutes at any rate), and rushed to show the newspaper to my wife – as if merely being a woman might equip her to decode the formidable hermeneutics of high fashion.

One way to comprehend and justify the lunacy of these outfits might come from science and literature, disciplines in which strange and unfettered actions on the outer boundaries of reality often do, in time, yield results back on earth. Many useful daily technologies trace their lineage to pure scientific research; and in literature, while nobody reads Gertrude Stein – or did even in her lifetime – her eccentrically minimalist prose yielded up a lode of mainstream fiction that ran from Hemingway to Raymond Carver and still informs American prose today. Might some similar trickle-down dynamic be at work with fashion, so that an echo of today’s bizarro breeches will be found in tomorrow’s business attire?

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Public Spaces and the Common Weal

Every now and then I find myself recalling a long-ago morning in the midsized German city I once called home. My girlfriend and I lived in the section of town that housed students, artists, pensioners and foreign “guest workers.” On that morning I sat on our tiny balcony and watched repairs being done to the street below. It was a cobblestone street, and a stone mason was replacing a section of it. He was using differently sized stones, placing them at variable angles to create a floral pattern that spread around the sidewalk corner. I watched him kneeling there, painstakingly tapping stones a centimeter this way, a centimeter that way, to get the pattern just right.

I was astonished, even a bit mesmerized. Such attention to detail!  Back in the States you’d only find this level of care, design, and craftsmanship – and expenditure – at a private club, or at the homes of the wealthy. Yet here it was, a public street in the poorer part of town. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Such was the case in Germany generally, with its immaculate parks and train stations, its crowded but tidy town squares and gleaming public conveyances. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, was a country that nurtured the common weal with well-appointed, well-run, and well-maintained places and amenities.

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Just in time for today's announcement about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paul Theroux writes in the Times about the hypocrisy of billionaire philanthropists:

Every so often, you hear grotesquely wealthy American chief executives announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions, or billions, “to lift people out of poverty.” Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases, they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.

Next, two pieces from the current issue of Dissent, which includes twenty-some "arguments on the left" from leftists of just about every description. One of these is by the editor emeritus of Dissent, Michael Walzer, who argues it's time for the left to turn its attention "back to class":

In recent years, the politically significant and effective insurgencies in the United States have all been particularist in character, reflecting the politics of difference: the key examples are the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for gay rights. Each of these has been victorious—or, better, each of them has been a partial success, like all our successes. They leave a lot of work still to be done (as the militants of Black Lives Matter can tell us), but, still, we have won important battles on behalf of women and black and gay Americans. And the United States has become, with regard to each of these groups, a more egalitarian society than it once was. At the same time, however, with regard to the overall population of the country, we have become less egalitarian, more radically hierarchical. Inequality has grown in the very years in which we were winning greater equality for particular groups of Americans—and despite the fact that these are very large groups. Significant numbers of women and black and gay Americans have moved up the social hierarchy, but the hierarchy has gotten steeper.[...] 

Each of the particular movements was founded by people who felt the urgency of their own oppression—and demanded change in their own name, for themselves. And they were right. The particularist movements were and still are necessary and important. So each of the movements...deserves our support; their victories will make life better for people who need, right now, a better life. But, again, their victories will not produce an egalitarian society.

It is time to think about class.

In Jedediah Purdy's contribution to the forum, he proposes "An Environmentalism for the Left." Does that sound redundant? It shouldn't, as Purdy explains:

Although modern environmental politics emerged in the radical ferment of the early 1970s, leftists were suspicious from the outset of its easy mainstream appeal and its elite constituency. The same doubts persist today. The venerable Nature Conservancy’s close partnerships with corporations and focus on “ecosystem services” that can be monetized are just one reminder that environmentalism’s institutional mainstream fits comfortably with neoliberalism. Consumerist appeals to eco-consciousness (think of the local-sourcing policies and the prices of anti-union Whole Foods) suggest that environmentalism is about image and market choices. Despite decades of talk about environmental justice, the movement remains disproportionately white, elite, and motivated by romantic attachment to high mountains, old forests, and charismatic animals. Even treating climate change as an “environmental” question obscures issues of global justice—the ways that the world’s rich are much more responsible for, and less vulnerable to, the problem than the poor.

Elizabeth Johnson: "Is God's Charity Broad Enough for Bears?"

At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”

The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?

“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.

In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?

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Meanwhile Back in the Middle East

President Obama seems a bit put out by the incursion of Russian military into Syria and by the judgement of President Vladmir Putin that the U.S.-led coalition has made a mess of things in Syria. Russia after some days of bombing has made its way from what have been called moderate Syrian rebels to the edges of ISILs occupied Syria. These reports and claims remain hazy at least in the public realm, but the Russians are certainly doing something. But what? We shall see.

Putin's motives are not exactly clear, but are they as mysterious or as destructive as Washington sees them? Are all the residual anti-Russian feeling stirred up reasonably enough over Ukraine blinding Obama, McCain, Clinton, etc. to a clear-eyed analysis of what could be done to end the carnage in Syria and Iraq, a feat that the current coalition has failed to achieve.

In the meantime, this piece by Stephen Lee Myer at the NYTimes offers a coherent account of Putin's views especially about state sovereignty as background to Russia's actions in Syria.

"...At the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.

“Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one,” he declared at the United Nations. The Soviet Union, he said, had once sought to export “social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.”


To See What is in Front of One's Nose

We now have at least some clarity from the Vatican about the nature of Pope Francis's meeting with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Obergefell decision in June. (For those just joining us, it was revealed on Tuesday that the two met while he was in the States.) Here's the explanation Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the head of the Holy See Press Office, gave for what happened:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.

And, ahem, this further detail from Fr. Tom Rosica caught my attention: "The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday's press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue."

In short: no, this apparently was not an endorsement of Kim Davis or her claims about religious liberty, or a symbolic gesture of any kind. And no, this doesn’t seem to have been initiated by the pope – this was not Francis reaching out to make a statement about how to understand the rights of conscience or religious liberty. Unless Kim Davis or her handlers produce actual evidence to the contrary, I’ll believe the press statement issued today. It certainly makes more sense than the shifting story of her lawyers.

But here’s what must be emphasized: we didn’t need this press statement to find the claims of Davis and her legal team to be rather dubious. The entire episode seemed radically out of character with the rest of Francis’s visit, both substantively and logistically. (Read Michael O’Loughlin’s helpful and revealing juxtaposition of the way the Davis meeting unfolded compared to, well, everything else that happened during the Francis visit, including his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor.) This dubiousness is not because of panic and bewilderment from being "disappointed" that Francis isn't a doctrinaire, American-style progressive; it’s because the entire Davis episode so obviously seemed to have something amiss about it. I don’t think it’s a sign of respect for this Pope to passively accept the version of events peddled by Davis’s lawyers at the right-wing Liberty Counsel.

When a story like this breaks, it can be exploited easily by those looking for public relations victories partly because of our collective fetish for “balanced” journalism and commentary. "Balanced" journalism means treating both “liberals” and “conservatives” with a certain solicitude; the imperative here is not the search for truth, but placating the different “sides” of a story.

A kind of theologically-inflected version of this tendency took hold with the case of Kim Davis meeting Pope Francis. We were told that the Pope was being the Pope, which is to say a Christian. And that the breadth of Catholic Christianity certainly transcends American political categories! Which is true but also, it must be said, a rather shopworn platitude. (This way of approaching the Davis situation was peddled by many, but it seemed to find special favor, oddly enough, with those conservatives who just yesterday were wringing their hands over potential schism. How swiftly they seized on this episode to recalibrate their understanding of this pope!) So Francis upsets conservatives by talking about the death penalty and climate change, and outrages liberals and progressives by talking about threats to the family and the sanctity of life. Something for everyone – and something to offend everyone. How congenial. 

You can see how easy it was to fit the Davis debacle into this narrative. And whose interests it served to deploy such thinking. 

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Here We Go Again

Here we go again, with another horrific campus shooting, the predictable postmortem game of blame, grief, evasion and inaction—and the President once again expressing anger and barely concealed despair at how “routine” it has all become. I’m well aware that there’s hardly a patch of American life more trampled on and muddied—and bloodied—than the quagmire of gun laws, the Second Amendment, and our nation’s high level of gun violence. But it may be worth reviewing some facts. 

The U.S. suffers about 30,000 gun-related deaths a year—per capita, around fifteen times the rate of other developed countries. In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these deaths broke down roughly into 11,000 homicides, 19,000 suicides, and 600 accidental deaths. Half of all suicides and two-thirds of all homicides are by firearm, with handguns constituting the large majority of weapons used (rifles account for only 300 homicides per year.) Domestic violence statistics reveal that 1000 women per year are murdered by spouses, boyfriends and exes—accounting for 94 percent of all murders of women in this country—and that the presence of a gun in the household drastically increases the risk of homicide.

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