Can the bedroom of an eleven-year-old girl be objectively a “mess”? To a pair of exhausted, exasperated working parents the answer is obvious. But when the girl in question notes that “mess” is a value claim and thus is not a matter of fact but an opinion, the point must be grudgingly conceded -- though allowance may still be withheld.
Pride in the growing ability of your child to articulate the difference between fact and opinion is tempered by the realization that it’s being turned against you, and that it will soon be deployed in disagreements inevitably more fraught than whether the dirty socks and Taylor Swift t-shirt need to be picked up right now. That my daughter has learned this skill in school on one level validates our decision to enroll her where we did, though on another it suggests continued vigilance is warranted: The Common Core curriculum, under fire from numerous quarters for a number of reasons, is now also getting the attention of moral philosophers who say it “embeds a misleading distinction between fact and opinion.” From Justin P. McBrayer at The Stone blog of The New York Times:
[O]ur public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my [second-grade] son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth.
McBrayer says he’d realized many of his college students already don’t believe in moral facts, and that conversations with other philosophy professors suggest “the overwhelming majority of college freshmen … view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” The implications are obvious and relevant to the recent discussion here concerning curricula at Catholic universities. Concerns about moral relativism in academia are established, though, and it’s too soon to know how anything specifically inculcated by Common Core will have an effect. College students were cheating, for example, long before Common Core; so were corporate executives; so were spouses. But it bears watching, of course, given that millions of students in more than forty states are being educated according to the standards -- which themselves might have arisen out of the academic environment McBrayer describes.
Plus, given the pace of technological development, it might one day be not just human beings that need moral compassing.Read more
"For the benefit of personal bankruptcy attorneys all across Wisconsin, I urge you to pass this bill." -- James Murray
In a wide-ranging, at points jaw-dropping interview with Aleteia, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, signaled his openness to finding a way for remarried Catholics to be readmitted to Communion--and suggested the church might reinterpret Scripture to allow the "unbinding" of marriages. Palmer-Buckle, who is sixty-four years old, was selected by his brother bishops to represent Ghana at this October's Synod on the Family. Early in the interview, the archbishop makes it clear that he takes seriously Pope Francis's call for open discussion of the challenges facing Catholic families today.
There are people in polygamous relationships, who were involved in it before becoming Christians. Their family had to make a choice: to let go of one women or two women with all their children without hurting the children, without hurting the wives. So it is an issue.
How do I baptize children of polygamous marriages? What do I teach them? If I’m going to tell them, “Your daddy must let go of your mommy,” will that not hurt the child emotionally, even spiritually for the rest of his or her life, to the point that he or she may even decide the Church is bad because it broke up my family?
I can tell you for sure that there are polygamous marriages where you will be amazed at the harmony between the husband and his different wives, among the different wives, and among their children. It’s amazing. There are many, many other instances where there is so much hurt going on among the different women, among the different children, and these must be brought to the fore. How do we help all of those involved to look at Christ, and to what Christ invites them to?
On the question of gay people, despite the fact that "Africa has always frowned upon that," Palmer-Buckle refuses to "close my eyes to the fact that there are instances in Africa of homosexuals, people with homosexual tendencies, people with lesbian tendencies." Of course the church teaches that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, Palmer-Buckle says; that dignity must be protected. "And that is why we must help that individual listen to what God says about his or her state," he continues. "And I think that is the beauty of what the church teaches us."
This vexes the interviewer, Diane Montagna, who asks Palmer-Buckle whether last October's synod could have been clearer about what the church really teaches about homosexuality. Wasn't he worried that some had "hijacked" interim report--which suggested there might be "positive values" in "irregular" relationships--to claim the church was poised to approve of gay relationships. But the archbishop doesn't share her concern.Read more
The headline in a piece in NCR Today: "University presidents reflect on the life of Jesuit Fr. Ted Hesburgh".
Irony? Freudian slip?
But now I see that he's been de-Jesuitized in the headline, and an apology issued.
We’ve posted a few new items to the homepage.
- Robert Mickens’s latest Letter from Rome, in which he writes on Cardinal George Pell’s role as “not quite the czar” of Vatican finance, and on the CDF’s reluctance to cooperate with Italian authorities on the status of a priest dismissed by Benedict in 2012 “for abusing dozens of children over a ten-year period” but re-instated by Pope Francis last summer; read the whole thing here.
- The editors on the importance of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart in how news is now being covered: “Stewart has for more than a decade functioned as a valuable corrective to much of what’s wrong with mainstream news, especially political coverage that can’t seem to identify the radical intransigence of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party for what it is. By intent or default, he established himself as a relentless fact-checker and watchdog, using research, video clips, and comedy to call out politicians and other public figures on their evasions, over-simplifications—and lies.” Read the whole thing here.
- And, writing from Nigeria, Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator discusses the continued strength of Boko Haram, whose “thin veneer of religious ideology” masks “a savage and opportunistic agenda of criminality and bigotry” that has brought death and destruction mainly to Muslims and Muslim areas; read the whole thing here.
- Also, don't forget: Joseph A. Komonchak continues his series of daily Lenten reflections on the writing of Augustine; see our special Lenten Reflections 2015 page here.
PM Netanyahu has delivered his speech to the Joint Session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner. Netanyahu's grand entrance to the floor of the house a la the President's for the SOU should not confuse us. Netanyahu wants to remain Prime Minister of Israel, but if he can manage U.S. foreign policy, he would consider that a plus.
Here is his address to the Congress, via CSPAN (at about 15 minutes).
Commentary: William Galston at Brookings on recent polling. Robert Hunter at Lobelog on outcomes of successful negotiations. Bernard Avishai at the New Yorker on what Netanyahu really wants--war. George Friedman at Stratfo on the U.S. dilemma in shaping a ME balance of power with or without Israel (HT: Jim Pauwels). Here's a British take on the speech. Reporters from the Guardian have annotated the speech. And here's Jon Stewart!! (R-rated metaphors!)Read more
In most parts of the world, the idea of anthropogenic global warming is settled science. And why wouldn’t it be? One study shows that 97 percent of climate researchers actively publishing in the field support the idea. Another finds that 97 percent of peer-reviewed literature in the field supports the consensus view.
This seems pretty overwhelming. And in most places, it is. Most people accept the evidence as incontrovertible. But not so in the US, where the media portrays a stark scientific divide and huge numbers of people disdainfully reject the notion of anthropogenic global warming. This is also true of Catholics, including the wealthy types whose money has the ability to open church doors.
But why?Read more
With all due respect to the venerable American art museum in Manhattan, its reopening in May will only be the second most significant Whitney museum opening in the United States in recent months.
First place honors go to the Whitney Plantation, the first US museum "dedicated to telling the story of slavery", and powerfully profiled in this terrific New York Times Magazine article by novelist and journalist David Amsden.
Read the article for more on how New Orleans native John Cummings came to buy the 262-year old plantation, the quirk of industrial history that led to Cummings knowing "more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello", the planned memorial to the 1811 German Coast Uprising (America's largest slave revolt), the critical role played by Senegalese historian Ibrahima Seck in creating the museum, and what happened when black and white branches of the Haydel family reunited at their old family homestead. I want to slip off to the side with some thoughts about what this means for white folks today.Read more
Obamacare's opponents will argue their case on March 4 in the Supreme Court, appealing to a subclause of the tax code. Over at the New York Review of Books they ask, Can They Crush Obamacare? (David Cole has his doubts.)
This evening, Kelly Renee Gissendaner, an inmate on Georgia's death row, is scheduled to die by lethal injection. Her story has garnered some attention because of Gissendaner's theological studies in prison, and her correspondence with theologian Jürgen Moltmann. For more on religious life in prison, see Derek Jeffreys' book reviews from our last issue.
Joseph Bottom argues for the modern novel's Protestant character in Books and Culture. "To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant." he writes. Catholic novels, he thinks, are a little more tricky.
In The New Yorker, Eric Schlosser writes on "how a handful of pacifists and nuns exposed the vulnerability of America’s nuclear-weapons sites." In reflecting on what what happened at Y-12, he discusses Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, and manages to speak to some Plowshares activists in prison.
Half the battle against ISIS is media, according to The Atlantic. How does the U.S. tell a more compelling story to those who might be swayed ISIS's apocalyptic message?
Unlike their counterparts at the hard military end of the battle against ISIS, the American foot soldiers in the war of narratives are at a considerable disadvantage relative to their jihadist adversary.
Last night Jesuit priest and peace activist Father William "Bix" Bichsel died in Tacoma, WA. I was introduced to Bix two weeks ago after mass at St. Leo's parish, where I have been attending services since moving to Tacoma in September, but I had already heard much about him. A Tacoma native, he was one of the founders of Guadalupe House, the Catholic Worker community located just down the street from St. Leo's, and among other things, he participated in a number of acts of civil resistance in the Pacific Northwest and around the world to protest nuclear weapons. In 2011, he served a three-month jail sentence for an action at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base near Seattle.
It just so happens that this event is mentioned in an article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, which is mainly focused on how the actions of Plowshares peace activists, like Bix, have drawn attention to the troubling lack of security at United States nuclear weapons facilities. The article is worth its own blog post, but I'll just quote the bit that mentions Bix:
Although Sister Megan had been arrested between forty and fifty times, this was her first Plowshares action. And it was her idea. It had occurred to her a year and a half earlier, while she was sitting in a Tacoma courtroom, watching the trial of five activists who had broken into Kitsap Naval Base, the home port for more than half of America’s Trident ballistic-missile submarines. During perhaps the worst nuclear-security lapse in the history of the U.S. Navy, Father William (Bix) Bichsel, Father Stephen Kelly, Sister Anne Montgomery, and two others had managed to sneak into the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific—a storage area containing hundreds of nuclear warheads for Trident missiles. Those warheads don’t have locking mechanisms. If a terrorist group detonated one at Kitsap, it not only would destroy the base and the Trident submarines but could also deposit lethal radioactive fallout on Seattle, about thirty miles to the east. If the group set off conventional explosives close to the warheads, a toxic cloud of plutonium might blanket the city. The Plowshares activists easily cut through Kitsap’s perimeter fence, hiked around the huge base for four hours, ignored all the warning signs, cut through two more fences, and got to within about forty feet of the bunkers where the nuclear warheads are stored. Father Bix was eighty-one at the time. Sister Anne was eighty-three. Having survived two open-heart surgeries, Father Bix brought along his nitroglycerine tablets and paused to take some during the long hike. About twenty marines with automatic weapons stopped the activists, put hoods on them to prevent them from seeing any more of the top-secret facility, and made them lie on the ground for three and a half hours, while the base was searched for other intruders. When someone later said to Bichsel, Please, Father, don’t get into any more trouble, he laughed and replied, “We’re all in trouble.”
Father Hesburgh wrote a piece in America Magazine that seems even more relevant today than in 1962. In dialogue once again with Cardinal Newman, he wrote:
Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.Read more
This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.
His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.
Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.
And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.
I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.
"...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?
Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.
Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."
Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame from from 1952 to 1987, giant of the Catholic Church in the United States, died late last night at the age of ninety-seven. Read the Notre Dame announcement here (don't miss the biography and photos), the New York Times obituary here, the Chicago Tribune's, the Washington Post's, and the Observer's.
Fr. Hesburgh wrote precious little for Commonweal over the decades (although he was very much written about). Both of his Commonweal articles appeared in 1961. The first was an excerpt from a talk he gave on American Catholic higher education in the twentieth century. The second was developed (it seems) from that address: "What are we doing to mediate, philosophically and theologically, as only the Catholic higher learning can," Hesburgh asked, "between these various extremes that make up the divided fabric of our society?" It's a queston worth pondering today.
In an interview with the campus paper, Heburgh spoke movingly about his vision for the university he loved:
“I think Notre Dame has to be a tremendous force for good, but it has to do it as an educational institution,” he said, his voice solemn. “We’re not a political party, we’re not a, you know, a bunch of gangsters with a lot of money trying to run things in a bad way. We’re trying our best to create a great country by putting into the mainstream of that country people who are not just knowledgeable, but they’re dedicated and they have high hopes for the future and they’re willing to work hard to be the best. To create the best country on earth.”
My friend Natalia Imperatori-Lee, who did her PhD at Notre Dame (and now teaches theology at Manhattan College) recalled her first enounter with Hesburgh, during her first year in South Bend. It was 2000:
Before I had any idea who he was, Fr. Hesburgh knocked on my carrel door and asked if I would help him say Mass in his office. I followed this old man back through the winding hallways of the library into his office, to a small room with an altar, where he had me do all the readings--including the gospel--and he recited the eucharistic prayers by heart. At the end, we hugged. He never mentioned his name.
Requiescat in pace.
There has been a lot of fiery rhetoic about Netanyahu's acceptance of an invitation to speak to the U.S. Congress without consultating the White House and Dept. of State. There have been hard questions: Is this the end of the special relationship? How will the U.S. vote the next time an Israeli-related resolution comes before the Security Council? Will U.S. subventions to Israel be cut back? Will the U.S. become even-handed in efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement? Has the Republican Party become Israel's new best friend? What price will Israel pay if the Prime Minister undermines U.S. efforts to come to an agreement with Iran?
We can't actually know the answers to those questions right now. A lot of everybodies will show up for his speech on March 3, including many Democrats. Netanyahu will get a lot of face time on the news. His speech could derail the Iran nuclear talks now culminating in Geneva.
Would we be wrong in suspecting that whatever Netanyahu says and whatever happens in Geneva, business will continue as usual?
Susan Rice, head of the National Security Council, called Netanyahu's decision "destructive" of the U.S. Israeli relationship. But then, she went on to say to Charlie Rose, “The point is, we want the relationship between the United States and Israel to be unquestionably strong, immutable, regardless of political seasons in either country, regardless of which party may be in charge in either country. We’ve worked very hard to have that,” she said, “and we will work very hard to maintain that.”
UPDATE: Story in (2/26) NYTimes. UPDATE 2: David Brook's column (2/27) provides a mild preview of what Netanyahu is likely to declaim next week. "Converting the Ayatollahs" is an unfortunate headline on the column. A round-up of Israeli objections to Netanyahu's speech (including objections from AIPAC). UPDATE 3: Paul Pillar offers an analysis of Netanyahu's purposes in derailing negotiations with Iran--and it isn't bombs. Even Jeffrey Goldberg!
Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.
Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.Read more
On Monday Mexico's foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribreña, complained--"with sadness and concern"--that comments recently made by Pope Francis had stigmatzed the Mexican people. The Holy See spokesman was forced to issue a "clarification" of those remarks this morning. So what did Francis say that so wounded the Mexican government?
“Hopefully, we’re in time to avoid ‘Mexicanization,'" the pontiff wrote to an Argentine lawmaker last Saturday. “I’ve been talking with some Mexican bishops, and the situation is terrifying.” Francis was referring to Argentina's drug problem. According to the UN, Argentina is the third largest exporter of cocaine, after Colombia--and Mexico. The Mexican government was so upset that it hauled in the papal ambassafor to air its grief over Francis's remarks. It must have come as quite a shock when the papal ambassador informed the foreign minister that Mexico has a calamitous drug-trafficking problem.
In Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi's new book Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, Francis condemns "gender theory," likening it to nuclear war and genetic manipulation. Joshua McElwee reports:
[Francis] says that every historical period has "Herods" that "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation....Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,....Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.
And in a January 19 press conference, he used "gender theory" as an example of ideological colonization, a tactic, he said, used by the Nazis.
Surely something comparable to BOTH nuclear war AND the Nazis deserves some attention. What is this "gender theory," anyway?
Francis seems to be echoing the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI in his 2012 Christmas address to the Curia:
People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.
Benedict makes three main complaints:
1. He rejects the disconnection of gender from sex.
2. He complains that it is said to be socially constructed or individually chosen
3. He asserts that duality of male and female is essential to human nature.
According to McElwee, Pope Francis' target is "modern theories that consider people's gender identities to exist along a spectrum," which introduces another concept, that of gender identity.
Here, I'll start with a few definitions, basically to clarify the vocabulary of the debate, with a few comments along the way:Read more
Our March 6 issue is now live on the website. In addition to our three-story package “Clerical Errors: How Are We Training Our Priests?” the issue also features:
Rita Ferrone on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the vernacular for the liturgy, and what we risk by taking it for granted; read all of “Unity, Not Uniformity” here.
Anthony Annett on the importance on Catholic social teaching in steering a careful economic course between individualism and collectivism; read all of “Papal Economics” here.
Robert Cowan on the need to focus on the connection between mass incarceration and disinvestment in public education – and so to help the formerly incarcerated remain in college rather than choose to return to jail. Read all of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” here.
Also posted today: E. J. Dionne Jr. on the many quantifiable successes of Obamacare – and why we’re likely to miss it should it be dismantled. And, Fr. Joseph Komonchak continues his daily Lenten reflections on the writings of Augustine; see the Lenten Reflections 2015 page here (and make sure to bookmark it if you haven't).
Just a handful of links today:
Today, President Obama will seek an emergency legal stay to halt a Texas judge’s injunction against Obama’s program to defer more than 4 million deportations. Republicans are saying that the White House should not be so confident the injunction can be reversed.
In related news regarding imminent White House decisions, President Obama is also expected to veto the Republican’s bill for construction of the Keystone pipeline, beginning what the New York Times calls “the veto era of his presidency.”
Greece presents its initial plan for economic reform today, but it’s drawing criticism from the left.
Birdman picked up four Oscars last night, and Richard Brody at the New Yorker didn’t think much of the proceedings. He also seems to think Wes Anderson is underrated.