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On sex abuse, asking the right questions

The announcement over the weekend of the new Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors made me think that at least I was asking the right questions at the panel discussion with Cardinal O'Malley last Wednesday. Leadership roles for women? They make up half the membership of this commission (so far), a good start. Will O'Malley be advising Francis on appointments to the commission, or sex-abuse-related policies and priorities? Obviously (as he must have already known).

As for accountability: it's something the commission may (and should) decide to take up. I think Mark Silk has it right. After quoting the Vatican's official description of the commission's duties, he writes:

I would suggest to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the big dog on the commission, that the key item on this list is “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities.” In the U.S.and many other places around the world, there’s  been plenty of attention to education and the discipline of abusers, to say nothing of symbolic acts of ecclesiastical apology. What’s needed are binding and enforceable legal procedures.

All the best practices in the world aren't going to be much help if there's no visible, consistent, appropriate policy for dealing with bishops and others who ignore them. Silk is encouraged by the presence on the commission of Baroness Sheila Hollins, who, he says, "is notable for calling on the Vatican to punish church officials (read: bishops) who fail to implement or enforce church rules on pedophile priests." And honestly, any lay person -- even a titled one -- should be a big help in reminding the pope and cardinals that attending to the view from outside the Vatican is what matters most if the church is ever going to recover from this blow to its credibility.

Crumbling Crackers Crisis

No, not Ukraine. Much closer to home. After the Christmas crisis looking for usable pot holders and candy canes, the household now faces the crisis (and mystery) of crumbling crackers. Our long-time favorites "Stoned Wheat Thins," crumble when touched, barely touched.

What are crackers good for? As platforms for peanut butter, herring, and cheese. Shortly after the New Years, opening a new box, I found they did not stay intact long enough to break in half along their perforation. Forget peanut butter!!! Subsequent boxes: more crumble.

Took the matter in hand and wrote to the manufacturer, Mondelez. They have replied: "The differences you noted may be due to a change in the production facility and the process we use to make the cracker. We have also made some minor changes to the formula. Some of the changes we made are: Changed the oil; Removed the Whey Powder; Added Ammonium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite (used to make dough rise)....We apologize for this experience. We will make sure our Quality team is aware of your comments. Thank you for your loyalty and we hope that your next experience is a good one."

Can the experience of crumbling crackers ever be a good one?

What's on the website

Currently featured on the homepage, Nathan Schneider’s tribute to poet Ned O’Gorman, and E. J. Dionne Jr.’s latest column, on how opponents of the Affordable Care Act are casting the fight in terms of reducing government’s role in helping the vulnerable.

We also continue to look back on some of the stories that appeared during the 1920s, our first decade in print, and we’ll be featuring more from the archives in the days to come as we mark our ninetieth year of publication. And, now through Easter, we’re running Joseph A. Komonchak's series of Lenten reflections: a new reading from Augustine appears daily, so make sure to visit our dedicated page every morning. 

Nietzsche's Jesus ... and ours

Whatever else Christian theology is, it is an exercise in literary criticism. That is, to be a theologian is to take revelation seriously and taking revelation seriously means understanding that God has revealed himself in the Scriptures. To understand those Scriptures, then, one needs to pay attention to form, to genre, to plot, to figures of speech, and all the rest. And of course knowledge of history and philosophy and archeology among a host of relevant disciplines can and should be brought to bear on interpreting those Scriptures.

This is all a roundabout way of introducing two excellent literary critics: Terry Eagleton and Friedrich Nietzsche. If you haven’t read Eagleton’s article in the most recent Commonweal, go and do that now. What I write here is intended to be a codicil to Eagleton’s piece. * I’ve just finished teaching Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and as usual, the students were in turn angered, surprised, and bewildered. And that anger, surprise, and bewilderment came from Nietzsche’s interpretations of the Gospels, from, we might say, his literary criticism.

As Eagleton makes clear, Nietzsche is the first real atheist, but it’s worth noting that while Nietzsche hates Christianity, he has a particular fondness for Jesus. Nietzsche’s Jesus is not the Son of God or the Word made flesh. Nietzsche’s Jesus is a dim-witted man who spoke in metaphors that no one ever understood. Yes, Jesus brings glad tidings, but the “‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle – it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain.” Jesus is an overgrown child. Like a child, he tells stories to tell how he feels. It’s just that everyone has misunderstood the stories.

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Counter-typical thinking: Russia-Iran Division

Now that Russia has become enemy numero uno again, suspcion has fallen on their attitude toward Iran and the P5+1 negotiations to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons. But why would Russia, right next door to Iran (closer than Israel), want its islamic near-neighbor to have such weapons? Doesn't make sense.

Paul Pillar makes that obvious point. He goes on to speculate that Russia's hint that it might ratchet down its sanctions participation against Iran and begin trading could help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

His argument: "Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations....What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter...that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek."

In other words, the Iranians have to be convinced that the sanctions are not finally for the purpose of regime change (the goal of some U.S. policy makers and congress men/women).

The Singing Nun Is Singing A New Song

Sr. Cristina Scucchia of the Sisters of the Holy Family rocked the house and wowed the judges on the Italian edition of "The Voice" with her cover of Alicia Keys' chart-topping 2007 hit, "No One".

(Check out the reactions of the judges, especially at 1:04.)

 

Pope names members of Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Pope Francis has named the first eight members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he announced last December. Half are women. Five are laypeople. Two are Jesuits (one of them was formed in Argentina by the pope himself). One is a cardinal--Sean O'Malley--and he's the only American. Here they are:

Dr. Catherine Bonnet (France)
Mrs. Marie Collins (Ireland)
Prof. the Baroness Sheila Hollins (UK)
Card. Sean Patrick O’Malley  (U.S.A.)
Prof. Claudio Papale (Italy)
Her Excellency Hanna Suchocka (Poland)
Rev. Humberto Miguel Yañez, SJ (Argentina)
Rev. Hans Zollner, SJ (Germany)

They will be tasked with writing the "statutes" of the commission, and more members will be added at a later date. In a statement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, explained that the commission "will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large."

Brief bios (except Bonnet's) from the Holy See Press Office after the jump.

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Talking with Cardinal O'Malley

On Wednesday I was part of a panel discussion on the occasion of Pope Francis's one-year anniversary, featuring Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, moderated by Ken Woodward, and hosted by the American Bible Society. It was really more of a group interview than a discussion -- after Cardinal O'Malley spoke about the spiritual side of Francis's papacy, the other panelists, Matt Malone of America and Rusty Reno of First Things, and I took turns asking him questions but didn't talk much to each other (not onstage, anyway).

If you were there, thank you! I spoke to a lot of audience members afterward and truly enjoyed meeting you all. For those who couldn't make it, if I find out about a recording or a transcript of the event, I will certainly let you know. In the meantime I am grateful to Beth Griffin's report for Catholic News Service for capturing the highlights.

The Cardinal, as one of the eight men named by Pope Francis to his personal advisory council, is very well positioned to give an insider's view of Francis's plans. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he was, for the most part, too discreet to do so. I put to him some of the questions that were on my mind and yours: I noted that many people, including myself, were disappointed with the pope's recent remarks on the sex-abuse crisis in that he did not make any reference to the question of accountability for bishops and administrators who mishandled cases of abuse, despite the role that lack of accountability has played in the scandal and in damaging the church's credibility. So, I asked Cardinal O'Malley, do you have any sense of whether that issue is on the pope's radar (I think that's how I put it), and what he might plan to do about it? His answer, as Griffin transcribes it:

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Ganswein unbound.

In a new interview with German television, Archbishop Georg Ganswein broke a bit of news. First he revealed that Pope Francis asked his predecessor to comment on the text of the interview he gave to the world's Jesuit publications last summer. Francis had Ganswein -- who acts both as the prefect of the papal household and as personal secretary to Benedict XVI -- deliver the document to the retired pope, along with one blank sheet of paper on which to record his responses. "Three days later Benedict handed me four pages of reflections, notes, and supplements concerning certain questions -- things one might go into in more detail elsewhere -- most interesting -- but I’m not of course going to reveal them. I then took this booty back to the Pope," according to Ganswein. Remind me never to give that guy any private correspondence.

But Ganswein didn't stop there. In the same interview, he also mentioned that Francis was not his choice to succeed Benedict. "I had favored other candidates," he said. "I was wrong -- but then so were other people.” Pope Francis may be fawned over by the media, he continued, “but that won’t always be the case.” Sounds ominous. The pope is not “everybody’s darling," he added -- in English.

This isn't the first time Ganswein has popped off about the pope (the current pontiff, not the "hidden from the world" one).

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"Grass is Greener" conundrum; more conundrum

While there is still a lot of hand-wringing in DC about Crimea becoming part of Russia, we might consider this story in the NYTimes about the consequences of joining Russia. South Ossetia signed up in 2008 after a scuffle between Russia and Georgia; now a certain amount of seller's remorse has emerged, at least economically.

Even if the Times story suggests a bout of schadenfreude, the outcome may be of interest to the Crimeans. "These days South Ossetia’s economy is entirely dependent on budgetary funds from Russia. Unemployment is high, and so are prices, since goods must now be shuttled in through the tunnel, long and thin like a drinking straw, that cuts through the Caucasus ridge from Russia. Its political system is controlled by elites loyal to Moscow, suddenly wealthy enough to drive glossy black cars, though many roads are pitted or unpaved."

William Pfaff speaks: Right here at Commonweal, a balanced and brief assessment of what Putin is NOT likely to do.

UPDATES: Leadership is a major challenge for Ukraine as it attempts to move ahead. The heroine of the moment, Yulia Tymoshenko, recently released from jail is likely to be a candidate in the coming elections. This profile shows why many Ukrainians who hope for change might hesitate to re-elect her though as Putin has said, "She's the only man in Ukraine." He should know!

A Round-Up of what the EU missed in the run-up to the Ukraine conundrum. Detailed but succinct analysis; some helpful maps. Ukrainian Tumult Highlights EU's Past Missteps and Future Dangers.

A Kathleen Parker interview with Nikita Kruschev's (he gave Ukraine the Crimea) great-great grandaughter; it's about Putin and what he did and is likely to do (or not). HT: Jim Jenkins

Joseph: Guardian and Protector

When the inspiration came to travel to Rome last March for the historic Conclave, a prime concern was to choose realistic dates for the stay. How long would the Conclave last? When would the inaugural Mass of the new Pope be held? I happened to meet Cardinal Timothy Dolan and put the question to him. Without sure knowledge, he allowed himself to express a hope: "it would be wonderful if it were held on the Feast of Saint Joseph." And so it came to pass.

Monday March 18, 2013 was one of the rawest rainiest days I have ever experienced in Rome. Wednesday the 20th was almost equally dismal. But Tuesday the 19th, the Feast of Saint Joseph, dawned with glorious sunshine. The blue sky above Saint Peter's Square was radiant, and as the Mass proceeded, the overflow and enthusiastic congregation removed jackets and were basking in sunlit joy: Gaudium magnum, indeed!

Here is some of what we heard from the new Bishop of Rome:

How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. This is what God asked of David, as we heard in the first reading. God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan. It is God himself who builds the house, but from living stones sealed by his Spirit. Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

And he went on:

Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!

These inaugural themes have been sounded again and again during the year that has passed, in words and, even mores strikingly, in deeds. The full homily is here.

 

St. Joseph's eve

Today is St. Joseph Day. Only it’s not, except in certain Italian-American neighborhoods, where it’s been St. Joseph’s Day since more or less the weekend, which is when the confection known as the St. Joseph’s pastry started showing up alongside the grudgingly offered Irish soda bread in local bakeries. We Italians, never reluctant to indulge our impulse toward aggrieved resentment and victimization, have to remind the whole world that not everyone is congenitally (or even civically) compelled to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Must have something to do with the status anxiety that comes with, as I’ve seen at least one Irish writer phrase it recently, “arriving on a later boat.”

Growing up in rural western New Jersey, I was spared the ethnic strife I understood to be forever roiling the urban centers to the east. My father might mutter vaguely now and then about “Connecticut and Westchester Irish” he had to deal with as a day student at Fordham University in the 1950s, but he exhibited indifference to March 17, and I didn’t even know what a St. Joseph’s pastry was, or the symbolism it carried for certain immigrants and their children, until I got to know my wife’s family.

From them I got my first look at a St. Joseph’s pastry, along with firsthand stories from the frontlines of Jersey City—about the Irish toughs who bullied my father-in-law, the Irish girls who brazenly yanked the hair of his aunts and grandmother right beneath the noses of the uncaring teachers, the general haughtiness and superiority with which the Dillons and Halligans and McGoverns carried themselves, “walking down the streets liked they owned them—which they did!” Umbrage and resentment in plentiful supply, but neither did these stop my father-in-law from forging close friendships with kids like Francis Xavier Fitzpatrick and Jimmy McGovern himself (whose father Mugsy was selected for running the numbers “on account of his photographic memory”). Or one of the cousins from marrying the beautiful Kay McGillicuddy. Or the grandparents and the Dillons from becoming lifelong, mutually helpful neighbors.

Settled in Brooklyn, I was reintroduced to St. Joseph’s pastry only after my son was born, by the older Italian woman in whose care we were leaving him a couple of afternoons a week (his name, go figure, is Patrick). She said he really liked it, even better than the pistachios and Tootsie Rolls she fed him despite his only being eighteen months old at the time. This morning on the way to the subway I stopped by the local bakery, where a marked-down, forlorn-looking loaf of day-old soda bread sat on the counter. Over the weekend I read that the neighborhood I live in is now only about 20% Italian, down from 52% thirty years ago—a decline not nearly as great as I suspected from having watched the turnover in just the last decade—with median household income having more than doubled. Most of the other customers were ordering lattes and croissants. I ordered a St. Joseph’s pastry, selecting the custard variety (zeppole) over the cannoli-cream (sfinci), having to be reminded of the difference and forgetting just how large and daunting these things are. I’ll probably just bring it back home and split it four ways for dessert tonight, and quietly celebrate St. Joseph’s eve with the family.

Tourist season in Crimea

The ATMs in Crimea have run out of cash and local banks are restricting withdrawals to prevent a run. Also, the hotels and other tourist attractions are having serious cancellations. No doubt, the Russians could take up the slack in this vacation spot for Czars and Czarinas, etc. But will they? It puts you in mind of short term, small consequences that politically excited citizens might not think about when carrying out a revolution.  NYTimes (March 18).

AND HERE: Great Reporting. C.J. Chivers the NYTimes battlefield guy has gone to Kharive in eastern Ukraine where he reports on a demonstration and "confrontation" between proponents and opponents of the interim government in Kiev, "The Curtain Goes Up and the Clash Begins." He captures the choreography of staged events that no doubt have some political resonance. Nonetheless his story suggests that no one wants things to get out of hand. This seems to be a ballet staged for the benefit of Russian TV, but maybe they're just having fun.  Chivers is probably a Russian-speaker and captures the rhythm of events and has some good quotes.

As a frequent critic of the NYTimes (every day I am cancelling the subscription, and every day I don't), I applaud the resources they are putting into their coverage in Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, etc. The photo in the Chiver's story is attributed to Tyler Hicks, who we will all remember from his horrific and heroic Iraq photos.

African Saints, African Stories

It's a bit late---but not too late!---to start a new book as part of one's Lenten observance.  If that's what you're looking for, Camille Lewis Brown's splendid little book, African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men And Women would make an excellent choice.

The format of the book is simple and straightforward.  First Brown provides a short (1-6 pp.) biography of the saint's life.  Then she adds a brief passage from scripture, a prayer and questions for further reflection.  It's a wonderful format for Lenten prayer, but serves equally well at any time of year.  The book is divided into two sections:  "Saints, Blesseds and Venerables" and "Saints in Waiting".

African Saints, African Stories is a powerful reminder of the depth and breadth of the formative African influence on Christianity.  As Bishop Joseph Perry notes in his excellent foreword, "There is evidence of African contribution throughout Sacred Scripture. beginning with Genesis 2, where the sources of the Nile River are located, to the deacon Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian official in service to the Nubian queen, Candace, in Acts 8."  That influence continues with the witness and ministries of the early African saints:

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How Many Leaves Does Your Shamrock Have?

It has become a holiday tradition in my family, along with the wearin' of the green, to complain about the epidemic of four-leaf clovers substituted for St. Patrick's Day shamrocks.

Do Not Kiss This Person

In brief (and not that I need to tell you): the shamrock, symbol of St. Patrick (or, rather, symbol of the Trinity used by St. Patrick) and thus of Ireland, has three leaves. The four-leaf clover is a good-luck symbol that has nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day.

You may never have given it a second thought, but if you keep an eye out as you go about your business today, you'll probably be surprised how many inappropriate four-leaf clovers you (forgive me) overlooked before. It's an irritating mistake, like typos on menus ("burger's" or "Fresh Soups Everyday"), at least if you're the type of person who is easily irritated by such things. (In some cultures we are known as "copy editors.")

It is also, perhaps, a sign of widespread disregard for the religious significance of the holiday -- but there it's in very good company, because let's be honest, there isn't much that's religious about the American celebration of St. Patrick's Day. It's an ethnic-pride holiday, and in a lot of cases it isn't even that so much as an excuse for drinking too much. "Happy St. Patrick's Day! Be safe, everybody!" is a message I still see popping up on my Facebook wall. I don't think the implied danger has to do with praying too hard.

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Nate Silver weighs in on the Crimea vote

Fans will be delighted to know that 538 is back up and running. Leading off is an assessment of what the citizens of the Crimea may really have thought: an interview with leading pollsters on polling in the Crimea and Ukraine. Headline: "Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote--But Polls Didn't"

On St. Patrick's Day, a Mayor in Trouble with the Irish

 

First, New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio ran into criticism from fellow Italian Americans for eating pizza with a knife and fork. Now, it seems, he is in trouble with the Irish.

That stems mostly from his decision not to participate in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. He objects to the organizers' refusal to let an organization of gays and lesbians march as a group under their banner. But there are other perceived snubs as well, as The New York Times reports.

In the past, New York mayors snubbed the Irish at great political risk. Mayor Abraham Hewitt drew Irish ire by refusing to fly the Irish flag at City Hall on St. Patrick's Day. The Irish made sure to  vote him out of office in 1888.

Nowadays, no one even speaks of an "Irish vote" in New York, but rather of a white Catholic vote. It has diminished greatly, down to about 15 percent of the overall vote in the 2013 mayoral race, one analyst says.

But still, when one looks at the size -- and nowadays the diversity --  of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, it's hard to forget the major role the Irish have played and still play in shaping the nation's largest city.  The students paradiing behind the banners of the Catholic high schools are usually African American or Latino, and so are many of the marchers from the civil service organizations. Is there any other ethnic parade in New York that attract so many people from other ethnic groups to stand under its umbrella? (And in such windy weather?)

What makes this possible is that there are still influential organizations that carry the Irish way in their DNA: the police and fire departments, some of the unions, and especially, the Catholic Church.

A happy St. Patrick's Day to all.

Photo: Students from Cardinal Hayes High School march in the 2012 St. Patrick's Day Parade.

 

Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Joseph A. Komonchak's Daily Lenten Reflections

As the second Sunday of Lent approaches, stay current with our series of daily Lenten reflections from Joseph A. Komonchak. You can access our special dedicated page on the website by clicking here (if you haven't bookmarked it already). And it's always reachable from the "Trending Topics" line in the blue bar at the top of every page on our website. Today: "Disturbed, Not by Misery but by Mercy." A new reflection will be posted every day through Easter. 

Francis's First Anniversary Forum, March 19

As I mentioned last month, next week I will be appearing on a panel at the American Bible Society in Manhattan to mark the first anniversary of Francis's papacy -- about which you may have heard a thing or two this week. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, one of the eight advisers on Pope Francis's new "Council of Cardinals," will be speaking, Ken Woodward will be moderating, and I'll be there to respond along with R. R. Reno of First Things and Matt Malone, SJ, of America.

The event is free and open to the public, but tomorrow is the last day to register by contacting Margaret Sarci (email MSarci@AmericanBible.org).

For all the details, see the invitation (PDF), or click here for the information on the website of the archdiocesan catechetical office. I hope to see you there.