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dotCommonweal Blog

The New Republic positions itself for the future by looking at its past

It's still hard to know where the project will end up, or how much of the old New Republic will live on in it, but it must be said that the new New Republic has been having a very good week.

First there's the excellent cover story, by Jeet Heer, in the magazine's new issue -- its first since the December 2014 conflagration that was much discussed here and elsewhere.

The initial cries of outrage over owner Chris Hughes's determination to make the storied journal over into a "vertically integrated digital media company," which took the form of mournful (and well-deserved) encomia for the best of TNR's long history and the best work of its recently departed big names, were followed by more ambivalent reactions to the apparent death of the old TNR that focused on that magazine's spotty history of opining on matters of race and foreign policy as well as its occasional dramatic journalistic lapses (Stephen Glass, Betsy McCaughey...).

Now, the magazine relaunches, so to speak, with a cover story examining "The New Republic's Legacy on Race." It's a canny bit of public-relations positioning, to be sure; it lends some after-the-fact integrity to Hughes's decision to remake the magazine root and branch (if you're willing to assume the decimation of his staff was part of the plan all along). But it's also a very good article in its own right. Heer, a historian, does not simply recall the lowlights of the Peretz era or rehash the controversy over then-editor Andrew Sullivan's decision to publish an excerpt from Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. He goes back to the magazine's founding, in 1914, to trace its successes as well as its failures over the last century. "At its best moments," he writes, "the magazine has been a beacon of fact-based reporting and a forum for rich debate over racial issues. At its worst, the magazine has fallen under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore."

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Marcia, Marcia, Marcia--The Best Superbowl Ad of 2015

The best commercial during Sunday's game was the "Brady Bunch" Sinickers ad. For those of us of a certain age, that is. The making of the commercial is astonishing. Look at the physics behind this; it must be extraodrdinarily complicated. 

I just love Steve Buscemi in everything he does--whether it's Fargo or Boardwalk Empire or The Brady Bunch

Missing a Vocabulary of the Moral Middle

Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.

Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.

But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”

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Monday Morning Links

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Eamon Duffy creates a portrait of Pope Francis by reviewing three recent books on the pope: The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh, A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Pope Francis: Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely. After reading Duffy's "Who Is Pope Francis?", take a look at our review of Ivereigh's The Great Reformer from our latest issue.

Today Obama will announce his proposals for the federal budget in 2016, and the Washington Post’s Federal Eye blog tells us what we should expect. CNN explains how the 10-year plan attempts to help the middle-class. The Boston Globe addresses GOP resistance to Obama’s approach to addressing income inequality. 

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Mental Loops

The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.

I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records  experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.

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Superbowl Sunday reminder: Football is bad for you.

In a recent episode of HBO's Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel spoke with several members of the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose historically dominant season ended with a devastating rout of the New England Patriots. If you lived in Chicago during their reign, or really anywhere near a television or radio, there was no escaping the '85 Bears. There was "The Superbowl Shuffle"--predicting a national championship halfway through the season (to the chagrin of several members of the team). There was the cover of Time magazine. There were the TV spots. The inevitable SNL sketch. They were superstars.

But some of that light has dimmed in recent years. Former quarterback Jim McMahon now experiences extended periods of depression, and has struggled with suicidal thoughts for years. He has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Nearly half of McMahon's teammates are now suing the National Football League for the injuries they've suffered playing the game. William "The Refrigerator" Perry can hardly walk. Keith Van Horne claims that the team medical staff concealed--with the aid of generous distribution of pain meds--the fact that he was playing on a broken leg. Wilber Marshall is on disability. Richard Dent describes himself as "very damaged goods." At the age of fifty, Dave Duerson shot himself in the heart so that his brain could be donated to the NFL brain bank. His son found his suicide note, instructing the family to have his brain studied.

Near the end of the piece, Gumbel asks former Bears head coach Mike Ditka whether player injuries will be the cross on which the NFL is nailed. "Let me ask you a question better than that," the coach replies. "If you had an eight-year-old kid now, would you tell him that you wanted him to play football?" I wouldn't, Gumbel says, would you? "No, I wouldn't. That's sad. My whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward."

I'm going to watch the big game tonight, just as I do every year. I'll drink beer and eat wings. I'll laugh at the good commercials and mock the bad ones. But every time players knock heads, or the game is stopped for an injury, I'm going to think about this Real Sports piece. I'll recall Mike Ditka, revered by millions as a god of football, looking out into the middle distance and admitting that playing the game just isn't worth the risk. And I'll wonder whether the same could be said about watching it.

White Smoke over Montecitorio

Almost two years ago a deadlocked and faction-riven Italian Parliament failed to elect a new President upon the completion of Giorgio Napolitano's seven year mandate. The highly respected Napolitano, a former member of Italy's Communist Party, was prevailed upon to extend his term. He finally stepped down in January citing age and increasing fraility, in a manner reminiscent of Benedict XVI with whom he had had warm relations.

Today, adroitly directed by the energetic young Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, the "Grand Electors"  elected as new President the former Christian Democrat, Sergio Mattarella.

Here is a report by Kay Wallace who writes an English blog for La Repubblica:

Born in Palermo in 1941, Sergio Mattarella comes from a prominent Sicilian family; his father Bernardo was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat (DC) party that dominated the Italian political scene for half a century. His brother, Piersanti became Governor of Sicily in 1978 with a campaign to clean up the DC and rid it of its close ties with Cosa Nostra. He was gunned down in his car by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980. There is photograph that shows him being pulled out of the car, still alive, by his brother Sergio.

Mattarella is a centrist politician who has held several ministerial posts in governments of different political stripes. In 1990 he resigned from his post as Education Minister in protest at the Mammì media law, a bill that effectively legalised Berlusconi's TV empire. In 1993 he drafted the electoral law in force from 1994 and 2001, the Mattarellum. Later as Defence Minister he oversaw the abolition of conscription. He was nominated to the Constitutional Court in 2011.

Wallace concludes:

There were two big winners: Sergio Mattarella and Matteo Renzi. By imposing his will on parliament and his party, Renzi showed just how able a politician he is. After the embarrassing farce of the last attempted presidential election, it was also a good day for Italy.

 

100 Years of Thomas Merton

If it weren’t for his premature death in 1968, Thomas Merton would turn 100 years old this January 31. Fortunately for us, his legacy and wisdom continue to influence each new generation through the prolific corpus of spiritual writing he left.

I suspect Merton is one of the most well-known and beloved figures in recent American history. But for those of you who might be unfamiliar, he was an ivy-league nihilist turned Trappist monk, mystic, writer, poet, and activist, who spent his days at an abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Most people I know have read or heard of his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which he wrote at age 31 and which sold over 600,000 copies (a feat for any spiritual autobiography, then and now). He went on to write over 70 works.

I finally got around to reading The Seven Storey Mountain two and half years ago—an especially opportune time to begin, since I realized I would be exploring some of the same places he visited in his text: Rome, New York City, Columbia University, Corpus Christi parish, and the neighborhood of Morningside Heights in general. I found it thrilling to read Merton’s discovery of these places as I simultaneously experienced them for the first time. There were several layers: there was my experience of Rome, and the experience of reading Merton’s experience of Rome, and then discovering Merton’s discovery of himself and God in Rome—or New York, or Corpus Christi, for that matter—all while I discovered him, through his self-portrait in the text.

It’s predictable, maybe even trite (in the best possible way) to discover that yet another person’s conversion transpired in part while reading his compelling, sometimes pious, and always achingly human books. His impact is warranted: he has a way of making grace, faith, sainthood, and ancient traditions accessible—and more importantly, attractive—to a modern sensibility.

In honor of the centennial of Merton’s arrival on earth, here are ways you can celebrate:

You could stop by your local Catholic Church and do some contemplative exercises. If you’re in NYC, visit the church in which he was baptized Roman Catholic—Corpus Christi parish in Morningside Heights, where a lecture will be held to commemorate his legacy (including longtime contributor and friend of Commonweal Lawrence Cunningham as one of the panelists!). In the spirit of his activism, you could rally or pray for peace; you could also read his 1966 essay on the roots of Christian non-violence. Or strike up a conversation with someone from an altogether different religious tradition and discover common ground. You could watch Merton’s last lecture (see below) at a conference in Bangkok.

In addition to praying for his canonization (wouldn’t Saint sound so nice in front of his name?), I think I’ll try to attend this exhibit at Columbia University featuring photographs from a camera Merton carried throughout his time at the monastery. It would suffice, however, to simply revisit his famous (and perfectly mortal) prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (From Thoughts in Solitude)

Happy 100 years, Thomas Merton.

Archbishop Romero, martyrdom, and ecumenism

Pope Francis, early on, unblocked the cause for the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and it has recently been reported that theologians in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded unanimously that he is rightly regarded as a martyr for the faith. The Romero Trust in Great Britain has a website devoted to the archbishop which provides English translations of his homilies, pastoral letters, and other works, produces a twice-yearly newsletter, and sponsors an annual lecture about him. The 2013 speaker was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., and this past December the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, entitled his lecture: “A saint for the whole people of God: Oscar Romero and the ecumenical future.” Describing Romero as “ one of the great gifts of God to the whole people of God in the last few decades; one whose witness and teaching is a legacy for Christians everywhere,” Williams gave a moving description of the passion for the poor that drove Romero before asking what his life, and death, might have to say about the future of ecumenism. It reminded me of the "ecumenism of martyrdom" of which Pope Francis recently spoke and was a frequent theme of Pope John Paul II before him, particularly in his encyclical "Ut unum sint."

Some excerpts from Williams' lecture:

He poses a deeply troubling and challenging question about ecumenism: can we see our vision of unity afresh in the context of being united with Christ as he understands it? Do we seek not just the unity of the churches, some kind of fusion of various kinds of institutional life, or unity with Christ?

The ecumenical vision feels and sounds remarkably different if we begin by saying what we pray for and hope for is to be united with Jesus Christ. And through that, and in that, to be united with one another. And to be united with Christ in Christ’s proclamation and embodiment of good news for the poor. Of course, you can misunderstand this. You might think, for example, that ecumenism understood in this light meant that churches ought to assemble around social and political projects, rather than doctrinal formulae. But that’s just replacing one kind of formality with another. ...

... I regard Monseñor Romero not just as a teacher and a martyr who witnesses to justice for the poor, but as a teacher who has something crucial, life-giving, vital to say to us about what and who we are as a Church, as churches seeking to be more fully united. And the question he puts to us is, if we are only truly united when we are more deeply united with Christ, then there is a simple place to start on our path to unity, and that is learning to be united with the cry, and the need, and the agenda of those who are most at risk, and where appropriate to go and to share that risk.

None of this is meant to suggest that we simply dismantle all our interests and concerns in doctrine, and sacrament, and discipline, and simply go and look for good causes to support together. For, you see, none of this would make any sense whatsoever, unless our doctrinal and sacramental commitments were what they are. The Christ who is there with and in the poor is not just an impressive human teacher, but the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Almighty, clothing himself in our poverty, so that we may be clothed with his divine richness. Unless we believe that, none of this business about being united with him in the poor would make any sense whatever. And if Jesus Christ were just a great and interesting good man, then the Eucharist would be meaningless, except as a faintly melancholy commemoration of one of the innumerable tragedies of history, where great and impressive men tend to get killed unpleasantly.

The Eucharist, as the place where the very life of the incarnate Son of God is given to us, the Eucharist is the place where our responsibility for one another is renewed and deepened, and set on new foundations. That again is what makes sense of the commitments we take into our commitments in the world. These commitments are the ground of the whole vision, and they matter theologically precisely because they are what grounds and inspires the vision of solidarity with the poor.

Mike Huckabee, bard of 'Bubba-ville'

“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?

Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)

GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:

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Animal Ethics--Next Questions

Thanks to everyone for commenting on the post "The Status of Animals"  below  I was about to try to focus the question, but Jean Raber has already brilliantly and incisively done the work. So I am reposting her comment as the focus for a new thread:

I'd like to see less heat and snark in this discussion and more people addressing what I see as these larger emerging questions:

1. Do some humans love animals to a degree that leads to unChristian behavior (e.g., "adopting animal children" instead of fulfilling an obligation to propogate their own species)? Is there such a thing as a sinful "disordered love" for animals? How does such "disordered love" manifest itself?

2. To what extent (if any) does caring for animals (pets, wild animals, farm animals) enhance our love of God and spiritual growth as Christians?

3. To what extent ought Christians' personal feelings about animals guide their treatment of animals? Beyond local animal cruelty laws, is there Church teaching that guides proper treatment of animal life?

4. Should Christians apply different ethical rules to different classes of animals (e.g., wild animals, pets, farm animals, vermin and insect pests)?

5. Should scientific studies suggesting that animals have emotions and problem-solving intelligence be factored into the proper Christian treatment of animals?

Amen, Jean. What do you all think the answers to these questions should be?

 

Yale Police and the Threat of Lethal Force

Last Saturday, a member of the Yale Police pulled a gun on a young student for matching a description of a thief in the area. That student happened to be the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote about the incident with justifiable anger and fear.

The incident drew significant attention, and in a statement made Monday night, Peter Salovey, President of Yale; Jonathan Holloway, the Dean of Yale College; and Yale’s Chief of Police Ronnell Higgins, addressed what happened and referred to its implications. It begins:

"The Yale Police Department’s response to a crime in progress on Saturday evening has generated substantial and critical conversations on campus and beyond. A Yale police officer detained an African American Yale College student who was in the vicinity of a reported crime, and who closely matched the physical description—including items of clothing—of the suspect. The actual suspect was found and arrested a short distance away."

Salovey, Holloway, and Higgins also wanted to quell comparisons to incidents in recent memory:

"What happened on Cross Campus on Saturday is not a replay of what happened in Ferguson; Staten Island; Cleveland; or so many other places in our time and over time in the United States. The officer, who himself is African American, was responding to a specific description relayed by individuals who had reported a crime in progress."

The message is accurate that what happened “is not a replay” in that the officer did not apply lethal force. But in drawing his gun, the officer threatened to use it in a situation that did not warrant it. Why? The email says that a thorough internal investigation will take place to answer that very question. 

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The Weal's First Writing Workshop (with photos!)

Readers of dotCommonweal, especially young readers who live near New York City, might be interested to know that this past Saturday The Weal hosted its first writing workshop at the New York Public Library. The workshop focused on "writing online" and was led by digital editor Dominic Preziosi.

We were a motley (and so very "Commonweal") crew: folks from Keystone Catholics, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, NETWORK, Yale Divinity School; social workers, public health and justice department advocates; and two guys from Jersey—one who works as an economic research analyst and the other at an education publishing company—whose own blog is known to be a reasonably moderate take on "American politics and economic policy, Millennial culture, the Catholic Church, and the intersection of any subset thereof." We're fans.

The afternoon consisted of reading, writing, listening, and asking questions. Dominic spoke from years of experience and gave us practical tips: how to link, attribute information, and update a post with new information, among other things. We read different kinds of online writing (including Cathy Kaveny's "How about NOT Firing Her?" post from last February) and dissected examples of various types*: recaps, takes, reflections, reviews, thought pieces, analyses, etc. We discussed ways to build confidence in our writing and to look beyond and rise above the noisy, kitschy, competitive,  social media atmosphere we spend too much time scrolling through. We learned to ask "what do I know?" and "why does my audience need to know what I know at this point in time?"

So, what do you need to know? The Weal's first writing workshop was a success, and we're eager to host our next. Stay tuned.

*We'd call this a "promo piece." Sign up here for emails announcing news and upcoming events from The Weal. And follow us on Facebook!

The status of animals

This is Molly Kaveny. She is a two-year-old labradoodle who lives in the house I grew up in, with my parents and sister—about an hour away from my house now. 

Over the past several months, I have been increasingly convinced that Mollyis a person—a non-human person, but a person nonetheless. She has emotions. She has moods. She has reason, and will. She has goals—and she pursues them with astonishing success. 

This picture offers an example. I had come home for a weekend visit. Wandering into the bedroom, Molly nuzzled into my partially zipped suitcase, and removed a pair of (clean) stockings. She then padded into the den, and over to me, rightly figuring that of the five or six people in the room, I would have the most interest in them. She is presenting me with a choice: Either I can chase her round and round the chair, as in a crazy cartoon sequence, or I can ransom the stockings immediately with a treat. Either way, from Molly's perspective, it is all good.

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Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

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Snoysteria or Snowsteria: Which is most indicative?

Stop the Trains. Stop the Buses. Just Stop!!

Okay. It turns out at least in NYC that the blizzard was overblown; more like your very ordinary snow storm.

Yet, as Mayor de Blasio says, "Better Safe Than Sorry!" And it is wonderfully quiet.

But how are Fairfield, Providence, and Boston doing? To say nothing of Bangor.

New issue, new stories on the homepage

Our February 6 issue (the theological books issue) is now live on the website. Among the highlights: William McDonough on how Pope Benedict has revised his stance on communion for the remarried since originally writing on it in 1972; Eve Tushnet on the “Picturing Mary” exhibit currently at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Luke Timothy Johnson on Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God; and Francine Dempsey’s Last Word, "A Late Confession." See the entire table of contents here.

Also now on the site: Peter Steinfels remembers friend and longtime Commonweal contributor John Garvey.

Fr. Richard McBrien, R.I.P.

Yesterday Fr. Richard P. McBrien, for decades one of the most influential American Catholic theologians, died in Connecticut at the age of seventy-eight. He served as chair of the University of Notre Dame Theology Department for over a decade, and was a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, as well as a recipient of the group's John Courtney Murray Award for distinguished work in theology. From the National Catholic Reporter's obituary:

It would be difficult to find a figure comparable in making understandable to a broad public the basic beliefs and traditions of the Roman Catholic church.

For more than three decades, he was the star of the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame and the go-to voice on all matters Catholic in the popular press. His books, particularly Catholicism, Lives of the Popes and Lives of the Saints, were staples of libraries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

At his peak in the 1980s and ’90s, it is arguable that McBrien had a higher media profile than anyone in the Catholic church other than Pope John Paul II. He was the ideal interview: knowledgeable, able to express complex ideas in digestible sound bites, and utterly unafraid of controversy.

In a 2008 interview with the Boston Globe, McBrien was asked whether he had become more liberal or outspoken over the years.

No, I don't think so. I don't think of myself in those terms, although it's a relative term. I mean obviously I'm liberal if you define liberal stands as being open to the ordination of women, feeling that abortion shouldn't be a litmus test defining whether one is a good Catholic or not. I'm very much against the policy of a certain handful of bishops to threaten to deny Communion to Catholic Democrats -- and they're always Democrats.... I regard myself as a broad centrist. But to an extreme right-wing person, especially in religion, and within the Catholic Church, a centrist or a center/left person is automatically perceived as an extreme left-wing person, bordering on, if not actually in, heresy.

So why didn't he leave the church?

Because it's my church. It's my home. And I was born in it. I've been a Catholic all my life. And I have affirmation from so many good people. I feel that I have a responsibility to them to continue working at it and doing the best I can.

Richard P. McBrien, R.I.P.

***

McBrien wrote for Commonweal from the 1960s through the 2000s. His first article was about the radical theology movement, and his last was a review of Cardinal Avery Dulles's Church and Society. In between he wrote about homosexuality in the priesthood, the trouble with contemporary theology, the difference between faith, theology, and belief, the agenda for the pope who was elected in 1978, how the church should admit error, and an assessment of the pope who was elected in 1978. Do read Robert J. Egan's review of McBrien's last book, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism.

How White Is White? And Who Is White?

We have previously discussed the quesiton "When Did You Become White?"

The quesiton popped up again this morning while reading a silly polling story in the Sunday Times. The question concerned Bostonians and finding jurors for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother in the Marathon Bombing.

Are the Tsarnaevs white? This seems to be a factor in jury selection, or so the story suggests. As the author points out the brothers and their family hail from the Caucusus, the source for the word caucasian. If a caucasian is not white, who are all these white people running around?

Arrogance & attitude on climate change

"It is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." Let it be noted that the most vocal of the climate-science deniers in the U.S. Senate this week joined ninety-seven of his colleagues in resolving so. This otherwise meager concession to reality might have signaled a significant coming around on the part of the senator, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, who three years ago published his seminal The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Might have, except that in conceding one point he made sure to hold fast on another: That “man can't change climate" and that climate has always changed—there’s “biblical evidence” of that. “The hoax,” Inhofe declared, “is that there are some people who think they are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change the climate.”
 
Which might explain why he didn’t join the fifty senators (necessarily including some Republicans) subsequently resolving that humans “significantly contribute” to warming. Never mind that sixty votes were needed for approval: that it won support of even half the chamber came as better-than-expected news to the resolution’s sponsor, Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, and even Barbara Boxer, top Democrat on the Senate's environmental panel, declared victory: “It means that there's a softening of the attitude of the deniers.
 
None of this even begins to imply imminent action, of course; the resolutions were part of the maneuvering around the more politically urgent issue of the Keystone Pipeline. Which makes the celebratory remarks seem like another kind of denial: Symbolic votes to reject obvious falsehoods and to support obvious facts are taken as measures of progress, softening attitudes on hard realities as victories.
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