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Climate Change and the Migrant Crisis

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

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

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

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Annulments & Assessments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversing and Confessing

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

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The America Francis Will Visit

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

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

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

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

The Papal Visit Beyond Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Plane and Bike to Norway

In a largely painful and dismal story about refugees and asylum seekers, here is an account that shows the importance of geography. Syrians wanting to leave get a Russian visa and a plane ticket to Moscow from Beirut, train to Murmansk, car to Norweigan border and bicycle across the border to Norway. Bicycle required because walking across is not allowed.

UPDATE: Here are some charts showing EU quotas set for refugees in May. The numbers seeking asylum have increased. The charts show which countries have exceeded their quota; which have not; and what would happen if the increasing flow of immigrants were to be proportionately received by the May quotas. A bit surprising that Ireland has not taken more. Access? Hard to know.   NYTimes.

Francis: Doctrine Can't Be Separated from Pastoral Context

Riveting headline, I know. And yet, four weeks away from the start of the Synod on the Family (now expanded to three weeks instead of last year's two—more time for Synod truthers to spin elaborate conspiracy theories about the proceedings), the remarks Pope Francis delivered to the International Theological Congress on Thursday appear to set the table for the debate. I could summarize, but you're better off just reading what the pope said. (I can't find the text online, so I'm going drop in long excerpts from the Vatican Information Service bulletin.)

First, on the question of the local church's relationship with the universal (the issue behind the ridicuous attempt to smear Cardinal Walter Kasper as some kind of crypto-racist), the pope said:

There exists no isolated particular church that can be said to be the owner and sole interpreter of the reality and the work of the Spirit. No community has a monopoly over interpretation or inculturation just as, on the other hand, there is no universal Church that turns away from, ignores or neglects the local situation.
And this leads us to assume that it is not the same to be a Christian…in India, in Canada, or in Rome. Therefore, one of the main tasks of the theologian is to discern and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian today, in the "here and now." How does that original source manage to irrigate these lands today, and to make itself visible and liveable?… To meet this challenge, we must overcome two possible temptations: first, condemning everything: …assuming "everything was better in the past," seeking refuge in conservatism or fundamentalism, or conversely, consecrating everything, disavowing everything that does not have a "new flavor," relativising all the wisdom accumulated in our rich ecclesial heritage. The path to overcoming these temptations lies in reflection, discernment, and taking both the ecclesiastical tradition and current reality very seriously, placing them in dialogue with one another.

Next, Francis discussed the relationship between doctrine and pastoral practice (another major question to be taken up by the Synod fathers):

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Contraception in Context

Just in time for the Synod on the Family that is scheduled to take place this fall, I came across a 1964 article in New Blackfriars by the inimitable Herbert McCabe on "Contraceptives and Natural Law." The main target of the piece is certain natural lawyers who would argue that there is a linear relationship between sexual intercourse and the propagation of the species. McCabe agrees that any natural law account must begin with the premise that a particular form of life implies a proper function. For example, the proper function of the linguistic life is to communicate truth and thereby establish relationships between otherwise isolated individuals. On this account, the sexual life of human beings finds its proper function in the production of offspring. For McCabe, though, the production of offspring cannot be as simple as the conception of a child through sexual intercourse. In order to ensure the continuation of human life, McCabe argues, children must not only be conceived and birthed, but they also must be fed and clothed and taught certain skills necessary for being part of our human community—including the proper use of language.

For McCabe, this means that intercourse is but one move in a constellation of activities that make up the "game" that is procreation. This means that the question of contraceptive use must be approached in a broader context than simply its role in interrupting the connection between intercourse and conception. Simply interrupting this connection in one instance would not constitute a disruption of the entire procreative "game." For every such interruption, presumably, there are a number of uninterrupted acts that do produce children, and of those acts, it is conceivable that some may actually fail to reproduce the species such that the children born of them become full members of the human community. McCabe's central point, though, is that it is possible to think of contraception as a move within the game of procreation that might actually contribute to the long term success of advancing the species even while limiting it in the short term. To illustrate this point, he draws an analogy to soccer: In some cases it may be necessary to move the ball in the opposite direction of the goal in order to ultimately be successful in scoring.

If, then, we are to judge the ultimate licitness of contraception in light of natural law, it will not be enough to focus our attention on the relative openness to conceiving children evinced by discrete acts of intercourse. Rather, McCabe says that we will have to take into account the entire "objective context" in which contraceptive sexuality is being deployed. In this connection, McCabe offers one final example. Returning to the notion of language use as a particular form of life that implies a proper function, he says that contraception has in some cases been rightly compared to lying. If the proper function of language is to make true statements, then knowingly using language to make false statements in order to frustrate communication is an unnatural and illicit act. Similarly, if contraception is used to prevent the sexual life of human beings from fulfilling its proper end of furthering the species, then its use must be considered wrong. But, McCabe argues, illicit uses of contraception cannot be reduced to the straightforward interruption of the connection between intercourse and conception anymore than lying can be reduced to making statements that do not correspond to true states of affairs in the world. If the latter were true, then every great work of fiction would be a perversion of language, instead of the apotheosis of it that such works are often thought to be.

The reason why Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is not thought to be a disgusting pack of lies owes to the particular "objective context" in which its technically false statements are being used. In such a context, most of us understand that the standards by which language is to be judged as fulfilling its proper function to communicate truth have shifted. Similarly, McCabe argues, the technically non-procreative intercourse that takes place by means of contraception might, in certain objective contexts, require different standards to be judged proper to furthering the reproductive interests of the species. And just as those who know literature are probably best equipped to tell us the standards by which Jane Austen is to be judged a master of language, it should probably be left to those who know something of the sexual life to decide how it might best bring about those ends that are proper to it. Thus, McCabe says, "We have had enough talk about the theology of sex and marriage by unmarried people. If the topic is to be fruitfully developed, it must be left in the hands of married lay theologians." Here's hoping that the Synod includes a few.

What a Great Country!

The jailing of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis over her refusal to follow the law and issue same-sex marriage licenses, and the furor it has caused, is being called many things. Some call it martyrdom for religious liberty, and some a hate crime against gays. Others say it's a tempest in a teapot.

I see the whole affair as an affirmation of the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

First we have the Supreme Court ruling that gays have an equal right to marry, this despite the fact that a significant minority of Americans have contrary religious beliefs. Score a victory for no national religion.

Next we have Ms. Davis, who believes God forbids gays to marry. Because issuing marriage licenses to gays offends her religious beliefs, she doesn't have to do it. Accommodations have been made; deputy clerks can do it instead. Score a victory for religious freedom.

What a great country! Ms. Davis can even keep her job, which technically requires issuing marriage licenses to anyone legally entitled to marry.

Alas, Ms. Davis has refused to promise she won't interfere with deputy clerks who follow the law, instead choosing to go to jail. While she takes full advantage of one clause of the First Amendment, she would abolish another.

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The Cage-Fed Childhood

With summer waning and kids back at school, I find myself lamenting the restricted lives American children lead these days, and the disappearance of what’s been called “the free-range childhood.” In my mid-fifties and with a nine-year-old daughter, I’m both old enough to remember the old regime of childhood and contemporary enough to be complicit in the new one. Though I wince to admit it, I’m as culpable in the demise of the free-range childhood as any other parent.

But first: do you remember what it was like, that kind of childhood and that kind of summer? Out the back door, grab your banana bike, zoom off into the street. Pull a wheelie or two out of pure exuberance. See if Ricky or Chip or Craig are around. Start a game of tackle football in someone’s yard. Scavenge wood for a tree fort. Ride down to the cove at the foot of the street and chuck rocks in. Whatever.

The free-range childhood is my mother, shouting from the porch, Be back by five! I don’t have a watch, but I’ll know from the slant of the sun. Plus, she has a bell she rings, and I’ll hear it and lope home, like a hungry dog, for dinner. The free-range childhood is long, aimless days – blank slates on which you and your pals would scrawl the messy, adventuresome script of childhood.

In today’s childhood, however, everything is planned in advance, and there’s very little “whatever.” One day last weekend our daughter had exhausted her screen time, had read for two hours, and was climbing the walls. We hadn’t scheduled anything for her. So what was she supposed to do? I wanted to tell her, Just go out exploring! You’ll find someone! But I didn’t, because it doesn’t work that way any more.

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From the New York Review of Books, "Trapped in the Virtual Classroom"—the text of David Bromwich's speech at the Yale Political Union on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses):

The authoritative MOOC on any subject aspires to be accepted as a uniform convenience. And yet, we lose something when we shut out the human contact whose elimination makes for the convenience. Might it not turn out to be antiseptic—deadening, even—to complete a two-year or a four-year-long succession of educational requirements in the frictionless setting of the virtual classroom? And if we think of uniformity as a gain—millions of pupils imbibing a familiar doctrine from the same learned authority—what shall we say of the consequent loss of variety? Good teaching has more than one master, one method, and one style.

Both from the New York Times: a short photo essay about a community of cloistered nuns in New Jersey, and a time-lapse video of the painting of a massive mural of Pope Francis on the side of a high-rise building near Penn Station.

Aylan Kurdi, 2012-2015

“The waves were high, the boat started swaying and shaking. We were terrified,” said the father, Abdullah Kurdi, 40, a Syrian Kurd from the town of Kobani near the Turkish border. “I rushed to my kids and wife while the boat was flipping upside down. And in a second we were all drowning in the water.” New York Times


Data Day

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s already a big Catholic news week. Pew Research released a new poll setting the table for the pope’s spin through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia later this month. Francis announced that for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which will begin in December, he will allow all priests to absolve those who confess procuring abortions—and that priests of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X can hear confessions too. And today word came that Francis met with a liberal French bishop who had been exiled by John Paul II. Let’s start with the sexiest item: data (I’ll get to the other stuff later).

You’ve probably already seen the headlines: “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families” (at least that’s how Pew itself titled the report). Shock. Awe. Fainting couch. But look deeper into the study, and several interesting findings emerge. First, in addition to the fact that most American Catholics don’t agree with Catholic teaching on a range of issues, Pew Research asked a series of questions that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever asked before: How connected to Catholicism are you? Turns out that 45 percent of all Americans either identify as Catholic or are connected to Catholicism—20 percent say they’re Catholic. Is the 20 percent figure news? Not really. But first, let’s have a look at those values findings.

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His Turn

Maybe it’s human nature to identify symmetries between significant events. That would absolve the elderly aunt in my wife’s family for repeatedly noting that January 16 was the date of her husband’s birth, the anniversary of his marriage to her, and the date of his death; it was nothing more than coincidence, perhaps, but it was coincidence worth remarking on.

On a late-August Friday afternoon in 1997, we brought our son—born seven weeks premature—home from the hospital for the first time, set him on the floor with us while we ate takeout burritos, and looked at each other as if to say: Now what? On a late-August Friday afternoon in 2015, we came home from dropping that son off at college, talked about what to do for dinner, and looked at each other again as if to say: Now what? Two summer Fridays separated by exactly eighteen years: coincidence, but also symmetry.

The hours (days, weeks) preceding his departure were taken up by, among other things, reminiscing aloud about my own college experience. Endlessly fascinating stuff! To me, at least, in a textbook demonstration of what brain researchers call the “reminiscence bump” in action (when asked to reflect on memories, adults disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five). My larger goal, though, was to avoid repeating what I saw as the errors of my father—who when I told him I wanted to major in English, for instance, said to have fun trying to put food on the table; who when I told him I’d been skipping Mass despite living within yards of the campus church, turned to my mother and complained: Did you hear what your son just said? In this, I think I succeeded. I am supportive of my son’s intention to major in literature, for one thing. And where he is, there’s no on-campus church for him to feel guilty about not stepping foot in.

As with so many things that come with leaving home, it’s his turn to decide on that.

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Vicissitudes of Meaning: ‘All Lives Matter’ vs. Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged after the 2013 Trayvon Martin case, has been raising havoc on the presidential campaign trail, becoming the subject of heated debate. Republican candidate Ben Carson complained, “The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is focused on the wrong targets, to the detriment of blacks who would like to see real change.” Said Rand Paul, another Republican candidate: “I think they should change their name maybe – if they were ‘All Lives Matter,’ or ‘Innocent Lives Matter.’” Some are even calling Black Lives Matter a hate group whose rhetoric is partially responsible for the recent shooting of a sheriff in Texas. [*] In contrast, Cornel West, a proud member of the activist group, insists it is fighting a noble battle against state-sanctioned violence against African Americans.

According to the Black Lives Matter mission statement: “#BlackLivesMatter is an ideological and political intervention; we are not controlled by the same political machine we are attempting to hold accountable. In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people…”

So far, the primary methodology of accountability has been to interrupt the public appearances of presidential hopefuls and bombard them with questions about their sense of responsibility for the current state of affairs and their plans to eradicate racial injustice. Black Lives Matter has crashed public appearances by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley.

At an O’Malley appearance a few weeks ago, lieutenants of the movement leapt to the stage, commandeered the mike, and demanded that O’Malley answer the seemingly rhetorical question, “Do black  lives matter?” With great conviction, the former governor huffed, “ All lives matter.” The duo practicing the politics of disruption were not satisfied and reacted to O’Malley’s answer as if to say “Wrong!”

O’Malley, who has a strong record on civil rights, was profoundly perplexed. After all, you don’t need to be a logic professor to understand that “all lives matter” implies “black lives matter.” But despite his good intentions, maybe O’Malley in his puzzlement was missing something.

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Educational Video on Laudato si'

As we enter September through the freshly-instituted World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, we might expect Laudato si’ to get a second wind. This is especially true as we edge closer to the unprecedented gathering of world leaders at the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals later this month—a gathering that will be addressed by Pope Francis.

In light of this, there will obviously be a lot of initiatives surrounding Laudato si’ and the broader call to care for our common home. And this is good. Here, I will be a little self-serving and flag one in which I am involved: a short educational video, or “mini-MOOC” that explores the main themes of the encyclical. You can access it and enroll here. It's pretty straightforward.

This video is the result of a partnership between the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Religions for Peace, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/ Social Sciences. It was filmed in the Vatican in July—in the gorgeous Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And it is hosted on SDSNedu, the educational platform of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Speakers include Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute; Columbia University; William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace;…and me! Yes, I am clearly the odd one out among this illustrious group, but please don’t hold that against the MOOC!

Feedback welcome...

Political Correctness

Toward the end of the comments on my post about Donald Trump, both Tom Blackburn and Jean Hughes Raber—excellent correspondents both!—express fatigue and bafflement at the concept of political correctness, with Jean insisting that “I don’t know what it is.” we go!

I wholly understand that it’s easy to tire of a phrase like “political correctness” once it becomes a mere cudgel in the culture wars. But I have little doubt that it exists. While I’m not a campus regular, I’m no stranger either, having occasionally taught in English departments, and with some very close friends who are tenured academics.

I view political correctness as whatever impulse and/or set of commitments lies behind such absurdities as the ones mentioned in my earlier post about “Coddled Collegians.” Remember the college group that canceled a “Hump Day” event because the central humorous attraction, the petting of a live camel  (based on a popular GEICO ad in which a talking camel sashays through an office), was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent? 

Such anecdotes are silly, but they do reflect something serious, or at least I think they do. The m.o. on today’s campuses, at least among the humanities, features the elevation of group identity politics, with a special focus on oppression, and the use of academic discourses to apply an analysis of systemic power relations to individual interactions and (especially) utterances. The goal seems to be to cleanse public discourse, and even campus itself, of anything ideologically adverse. I mentioned the disinvitations of Condi Rice, Christine Lagarde, George Will and others as campus speakers. When I was at college, we eagerly invited speakers whose ideologies we were hostile to (Antonin Scalia, Cal Thomas, etc), and then debated them. Christine Lagarde is the head of an organization whose workings are central to the global economy. The student group whose protests led her to withdraw blamed her for “the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” That doesn’t sound like an attitude of eagerness for inquiry.  

Last December the President of Smith College sent out an email, in support of students protesting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that included this sentence:  “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.” She was roundly condemned for this by students and faculty alike. Now, the validity and function of the utterance “all lives matter,” in the wake of events that impinged upon, and destroyed, black lives—well, that’s a fruitful topic for discussion. What followed was not discussion, however, but apology. Her statement was, in effect, viewed as sin, and she was appropriately repentant. 

People seem to be spending a good deal of time waiting for other people to transgress, so that they can pounce. When I was visiting writer at an elite liberal arts college I published a fictional narrative with a black man as the protagonist (I am white). I was assailed by a progressive political scientist (also white) for my “audacity” in presuming to inhabit the point of view of the African-American underclass; he cheerfully skewered the story as an act of cultural and political appropriation. These tropes are common. Today it is my sense that the “white privilege” discourse is often being used in a similarly unhelpful way. Again, discussing white privilege as a concept—taking it on as a subject within an academic discipline—is fine, is necessary.  But using it to dismiss someone’s standing to speak is not fine.

The authors in “The Coddling of the American Mind” describe a pair of matched, hypersensitive attitudes that—if they really do prevail on campus—are dismaying: a quick instinct for excoriating judgments on one side, and a kind of cringing timidity on the other. My professor friends tell me that their own politics—classic Enlightenment/ New Deal/ traditional Democratic liberalism, whatever you want to call it—are viewed as hopelessly benighted...and that any attempt to question any aspect of the dominant campus discourse on race, gender, etc., risks being branded reactionary.

Is this true? Consider the following anecdote. Before I blogged about “The Coddling of the American Mind,” I joined an email exchange with three close friends of mine—all academics—who were going back and forth on the essay, and the issue of campus speech, in a rewarding way. One is a college administrator, and when I mentioned that I intended to post something on my blog, he immediately and with palpable worry emailed me and insisted that I neither mention him nor his college, nor make public any of his remarks on this issue.

I was disappointed by his hasty retreat, and he knew it. But, he said in his email, “it’s the culture we live in.” Quod erat demonstrandum!

The last thing I’ll note is that there are, of course, way worse things than whatever it is I’m trying to describe. The real America beyond the campus remains afflicted by poverty, inequality, crime, racial bias in housing and jobs, and a whole host of other problems that do not receive enough attention. Meanwhile, on campus, every utterance is scrutinized for the slightest conceivable offense. I guess I’m not always convinced that the latter is a meaningful step toward addressing the former.

So I hope that keeps the conversation rolling!

Something to Think About (2015)

Front page NYTimes, right-hand column: "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities."

Almost every possible theory of "Why," seems to be mentioned here. Guns. Gangs. Police laying off enforcement. Socialmedia. Movies. Music.

Any left out?

New Issue, Now Live

Our full September 11 issue is up on the site. Among the highlights:

Luke Timothy Johnson reflects on the joy and insight gained by reading and rereading Thomas Merton, especially the man's journals.

The journals suggest that the most famous monk of the twentieth century was not really a monk, in this most basic sense: at the heart of the monastic life is the refusal to see oneself as an exception or as exceptional; obedience to the rule and the abbot do not apply only to others, they apply above all to oneself. But such a sense of being special everywhere pervades Merton’s journals.

Read all of "The Myth, the Monk, the Man"—in honor of the centenary of his birth—here.

Gregory Orfalea digs into the current debate on whether Franciscan priest Junípero Serra, the "founder of California," should be considered a saint, a colonizer, or both:

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Short Stories, Long Days

Last week Nick Ripatrazone penned a love letter to John Cheever's iconic short story, "The Swimmer." (You can read the full-text of the story as a PDF here.) That story's opening line remains a favorite of mine: "It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.'" But it's not merely set in the summer; Ripatrazone nudges us to read it during the summer, too — especially as the story's sadness seems to match the barely perceptible chill you can begin to feel as August draws to a close. How Ripatrazone finishes his essay:

Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.

Reading this piece I realized that I have a go-to summer story myself. Perhaps fittingly, it too features a man in water.

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