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Why not? Update

As the congratulatory telegrams continue for Ireland's referendum last Sunday approving gay marriage and as we await the Supreme Court's decision on the issue of a constitutional right for gay marriage, we might consider some of the points Ross Douthat makes in today's column in the New York Times. It is headlined: "The Prospect for Polygamy."

Douthat grants that the issue of polygamy in the U.S. is an "outlier" among social issues, and it does seem far-fetched. Yet, it is worth thinking about his ultimate point: not today and not next year, but maybe 2040. And why not? What would keep the Supreme Court and public opinion from deciding there are no constitutional or moral bars to multi-person marriages?

UPDATE: The Gallup poll that Douthat references.

Trinitarian Communion

For all the commentary that Charles Taylor's monumental A Secular Age has generated, I think insufficient attention has been paid his culminating chapter, "Conversions." Here he tries to chart a path beyond secularity's dominant "immanent frame." Not surprisingly he turns to the poets as lantern bearers. Péguy enjoys a certain pride of place, but Hopkins figures prominently as well. Taylor writes:

Rejecting any doctrinal compromise with the spirit of his age, Hopkins returns decisively to the central Christian focus on communion as the goal of God's action in creation. God didn't just make us so that we could live according to the laws of his creation, but to participate in his love. What is striking is the way Hopkins brings to the fore once again the deep connection between this telos of communion and a recognition of the particular in all its specificity.

On this Trinity Sunday we might ponder that if communion is God's goal, it is because God's very life is Trinitarian communion. The fulfilled created image of God will be the realization of the communion of holy ones – as Dante saw so clearly. Communion, not fusion. Communion in which the names of each will continue to resound, now in blessed, beatifying harmony.

The Eucharist I will celebrate this morning will remember two wonderful parishioners who died far too young. Yet whose presence remains palpable. And here is how the homily concludes:

We pray that Michael and Robert may attain the fullness of their personhood in the loving communion of their Triune God. And as fellow members of the communion of saints, we dare hope that our prayers may support their entry into God's embrace.

And could we venture even further? Does their attainment of the fullness of personhood depend, in some measure, upon the living, loving relationships that they continue to inspire in us? Do we, by the lives we live, by our gratitude and generosity, truly contribute to their eternal joy?

All this we ponder, as Christians ever do, in the Presence of our Three-personed God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The divine GPS

The semi-official Vatican journal "La Civiltà Cattolica" has published an interview with Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues, professor of patristics and dogmatics at the Institut Supérieur Thomas d’Aquin, at the Dominican House of Studies in Toulouse, and at the Seminaire International St Cure'd Ars. He worked with Cristoph Schönborn in preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. With regard to issues likely to be the subject of passionate debate at the Synod of Bishops in October, Garrigues proposed a pastoral approach that takes into account the personal journeys of individuals. He offered a comtemporary analogy:

     When we take the wrong street or are distracted, the apparatus recalculates the route, taking note of our mistake and adapting the route so that we can reach the destination still desired. “Analogously, every time that we go off track by sinning, God does not require us to return to our point of departure because biblical conversion of heart, metanoia, is not a Platonic return to the starting point. God re-orients us towards himself, tracing a new route toward himself. Just as the destinations do not change in the GPS, so the moral goals do not change in God’s governance. What changes–and how great they are!–is the route that each person takes in his free journey towards moral maturity before God and towards God. Think of the number of alternative journeys that the divine GPS must have pointed out to the Good Thief before that final and supremely dramatic short-cut on the Cross!”

Andrea Tornielli’s summary of the interview can be found here, but strangely the English translation omits the paragraph I have translated above which can be found in the Italian version here.

The Enduring George Weigel Problem

George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.

Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.

And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel.  In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.

Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.

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Those Who Want Housing, and Those Who Need It

In London it’s become the fashion of wealthy homebuyers to supplement already sizable residences with cavernous subterranean lairs. In Manhattan it’s to move into a sky-high aerie, priced in the tens of millions, from which it’s possible to look down on the Empire State Building. In the Bay Area it’s to snap up anything inside the city limits of San Francisco, the near entirety of which has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley’s most monied.

Wealth has always shaped cities, but its current role in the transformation of urban centers around the world seems unprecedented, probably because there’s so much more of it, concentrated in ever-fewer hands, moving ever more fluidly and mysteriously through lightly regulated and technologically enhanced channels. Oligarch, plutocrat, or ordinary multimillionaire, the highest-net-worth property-seekers want to be in cities, or if nothing else be able to park their money in one (real estate being a good place to hide it). It may be a cliche to talk about the divide between rich and poor in places like London, New York, and San Francisco, but some cliches bear restating, especially when the divide seems increasingly inconceivable in its breadth -- the very function of a system engineered to practically ensure its further expansion. “Darwinian upscale urbanism,” as Martin Filler termed it in the New York Review of Books in April, referring specifically to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city he ran -- a place where the wealth of wealthy property owners was to trickle down to residents but instead, a researcher found, had “deleterious effects... on small business, the middle class, and taxpayers.”

It may not be easy to dig an enormous basement or live in a condo eighteen-hundred feet above street-level, but it would be even harder if there were not banks, developers, lawyers, real-estate firms, contractors, and politicians dedicated to making it possible.

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Anticipation and Climate Change

In his beautiful new book Finding and Seeking, Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers an extended critique of what he calls “anticipation” as a basis for moral deliberation. Anticipation is of a “middle-distance future” stemming from our actions, differing from the immediate “nearer future” of the specific purpose of our actions and the “further future” which, for Christianity, rests on the virtue of hope. O’Donovan suggests that good decision-making involves some anticipation, but it “must be kept in its place,” because our ability to control the middle-distance future is “fragile.” We all know this from experience: if we are contemplating a job change, we may see specific benefits and costs that will immediately result from it, and we may (as Christians) hope that we are contributing to God’s purposes for the world. But we can’t really know very clearly, five years down the road, how life will “look different” if we take the job or refuse it. What other opportunities might come along? What happens if there is a change in the business model of the company? The questions are virtually endless. Thus, if we get stuck on a “demand for definiteness” by relying on fragile anticipation, we may never decide, and we certainly won’t decide well.

O’Donovan’s larger concern here is how our public life increasingly is determined by this “demand for definiteness.” Candidates and official offer plans, and they are evaluated based on “what will happen.” This inevitably results in two problems. One, there arises “a preference for the short-term focus,” where predictability is most assured. Two, any attempts at a longer-term focus means “we must pretend to have a scientific statistical prediction, precisely in order to suit our generalized conception of what responsible decision-making ought to be.” But such “predictions” are of course exceedingly fragile, resulting in “a constant confusion of speculative anticipation with hard science.” The answer to “what will happen” if, say, the minimum wage is raised is uncertain – not entirely, of course, and economists can offer some reasonable claims about the trade-offs. If labor is more expensive, a business will have to think about various options – but even here, the options are quite different in different circumstances, with different business plans, in different places and industries. While all of this has value for prudence, it must be “put in its place” – one cannot say that minimum wage increases simply produce either “good” or “bad” results. The question must be subordinated to the question of how society as a whole maintains just wages over time.

But O’Donovan’s essay really made me think about the upcoming environmental encyclical and the place of climate change within it. “Anticipating” the effects of climate change is many orders of magnitude more difficult (but also more weighty!) than the effects of a job change or a minimum wage increase. Extreme weather events, like the unprecedented rainfall totals in Texas and Oklahoma or the ongoing drought in California, inevitably bring up the question of how temperature changes in the atmosphere affect weather patterns. THAT weather patterns are affected is not questionable; HOW they are affected is much more fragile. Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds, especially given our shockingly blasé attitude toward, say, the year 2100, a year we would expect children born today to live to see. But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity. I was in a conversation earlier this year where someone from the Boston area stated that she had long driven small cars, but that this winter, she had finally had enough and bought an SUV. What is one to do in this situation? What the person definitely knows is that the SUV will help her endure such winters, and the “anticipation” of the world in 2100 may not be a very strong counter.

All this points to something key about the environment encyclical: our news coverage and public policy is fixated on the “demand for definiteness,” and the question of what the pope has said about climate change will get a lot of attention. This is unfortunate. The moral weight of this encyclical – and any encyclical – does not rest on “anticipation.” Instead, it will likely rest on very traditional, core beliefs about two things. One, God has ordered creation. The Psalm response for today’s daily mass was “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” That’s not a prediction; that is a wisdom teaching about the good order of the world, which we arrogantly mess with at our peril. It’s also not a prediction that we are messing with it; that’s just clear. We are essentially using the atmosphere as an infinite waste dump – one might not wrongly say, “by the exhaust of our cars, the heavens were remade.”

And why are we doing that? For some good purpose? The likely emphasis on “integral ecology” will suggest that our disordering of creation is intertwined with a failure to love our neighbor in the fashion Christ tells us to. Put another way, the problem with big cars isn’t (simply) the “anticipated” effects of all this fossil fuel use; rather, cars are bad for loving your neighbor. Now, I’m not saying that somehow cars are per se bad. I’m saying cars – or at least an absolute reliance on them – is bad for human ecology, not just for natural ecology. Cars may in fact be the most important social strategy in America for people to avoid the problems of the poor. But even at a simpler level, what preacher has not used the example of our “response” to other drivers as an occasion where we express blatant anger at our neighbors?

We shouldn’t make environmental issues all about one thing, like cars. It’s not. But one of the major structures of sin that make reasonable efforts to deal with climate change so hard is we’ve built a society where we’re very attached to our cars. And my point here is that the Church’s concern for natural ecology is based on a belief, already stated clearly by Popes John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, nos. 37-38) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51), that environmental bads are rooted not only in a lack of care for creation, but in a lack of real love for our neighbors. Excessive energy use is rooted deeply in our individualism, our preference for going our own way, whatever it is, rather than cooperation and interdependence. Francis won’t need to rely on the fragile foundation of “anticipation” in order to tell us that.

Same-Sex Marriage 'Reality Check'

Many who are responding to the 62.4% majority vote to nationally legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland are making much of Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin's frank but vague remarks in the New York Times:

The church needs to take a reality check.... It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.... [I]nside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society…

That there is a growing gap between young people and the church on this issue is not new news, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. Martin is right to point out that anyone who doesn't recognize this is in "severe denial." That's why I think this referendum is such good news. It's a reality check, yes, but it's also an opportunity to let go of the fight against same-sex marriage. If bemoaning the referendum becomes the church's basis for strengthening "its commitment to evangelization," as the Vatican's secretary of state suggests, the gap between young people and the church will only widen.

I don’t have the polling data to prove this, but I can't imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.

Is there a way for Catholics to simply disagree with same-sex marriage supporters instead of having to “defend traditional marriage”? Is there a widespread movement to force the church to change its teaching on marriage? Why can’t traditional marriage exist inside the church, with same-sex marriage outside the church? Agreeing to disagree relieves the opposing parties of the burden of needing to win. Ireland has decided, by majority vote, to legalize same-sex marriage. At least one front in this protracted culture war has gone quiet. What a relief.

Over at NCR Michael Sean Winters wonders if it’s possible that “those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education, but, in part, because of it?” That’s a very good question. I suspect they did. Catholics have imagination. Tradition isn’t a force that eternally battles advancing armies. It’s the way the substance (not the accidents) of church teaching is passed down through generations of believers who contribute to this process by reexamining and reexamining again what their faith means.

Gay-friendly Catholics

Following up on Ireland’s referendum in favor of same-sex marriage, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s New York Times (May 27, 2015) provides some interesting information but stops short of the difficult question. Bruni points out that most of the countries around the world that have accommodated same-sex marriage or civil unions have large Catholic populations, and that American Catholics are the most “gay-friendly” of all Christian denominations, when it comes to questions about marriage or civil unions. But the real issue is why Catholics find themselves in this somewhat surprising position, surprising not least because church leaders, even those who ask “who am I to judge?” teach the opposite of what a significant majority of the Catholic people seem to believe. If we leave aside the tempting thought that Catholics say this because their bishops teach the opposite, what can they possibly be thinking?

One possible response to the U.S. context that would be high on the list of First Things would be to point out that the “Catholics” polled in the Pew research are always self-identified Catholics, that this includes many who are rarely if ever in church, and that the more often an individual goes to church, the more likely s/he is to be in the minority of the nay-sayers. It is also true that if you look at generational cohorts, it is in the youngest groups that the highest percentage of those favoring same-sex marriage can be found. And everyone knows, don’t they, that this is also the cohort least likely to be found in church on any given Sunday. The counter is pretty obvious: there is no litmus test for a Catholic (remember James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody!”), and perhaps the younger Catholics have experience that older Catholics don’t. In my long years as a teacher of mostly Catholic undergraduates I have found the growing support for gays and lesbians to have nothing much to do with moral relativism and everything to do with encountering and befriending gay and lesbian kids in high school.

So what other answers might there be to the question of why American Catholics are so supportive? I have three suggestions and I hope that readers will add more. First, perhaps the fact that Catholics have a celibate clergy that includes a large number of gay men means that the fear bred from ignorance is less likely to be operative than in other traditions. Second, could it be that a natural law approach to ethical questions, that is, that reason should guide our thinking and our conclusions,  is bred into the Catholic bone? Third, might Catholics be so imbued with the sacramental principle that they recognize any expression of genuine love to be evidence of God’s presence in the world, and hence to be cherished rather than condemned? In Ireland or here or elsewhere, the actual principal difference between leaders and people, on same-sex issues or birth control or religious freedom or perhaps many other issues, is that the leadership thinks deductively while the rank and file think inductively. Experience trumps ideology, which—strangely enough—is Pope Francis’s consistent message!

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

Remembering Vatican II at Georgetown

When school ends professors go on the road. The conference season kicks into gear, and for teachers of theology it has all begun this year at Georgetown University with the 9th Ecclesiological Investigations Network International Conference, also including half a day at Marymount University across the Potomac in Arlington. Today we are wrapping up four days of talks and conversations on “Vatican II—Remembering the Future: Ecumenical, Interfaith and Secular Perspectives on the Council’s Impact and Promise.” Organized by the tireless Gerard Mannion of Georgetown University’s Theology faculty, about 250 of us from many Christian traditions have talked and listened a lot, including to three, count ‘em, three Cardinals. We began with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, whom you may remember as the slight figure who announced the election of Pope Francis from the balcony of the Vatican. Cardinal Walter Kasper was also much in evidence, delivering a major address at Washington’s National Cathedral, but it was actually the third of the trio, Cardinal Luis Tagle, who aroused most interest. If we are focused on remembering the future, the 57 year old papabile Archbishop of Manila was obviously the best fit with the conference theme. He comes across very much as an Asian version of Pope Francis. He is very unassuming and equally charming, not at all the  shy and retiring figure that the media saw him as when they were handicapping the potential replacements for Pope Benedict. But while Francis’s context is the still overwhelmingly Catholic poor of Latin America, Tagle is very conscious that Asian Catholics exist as a small minority in the midst of countless millions of adherents of the ancient religious traditions of Asia. So, he has very little time for those European Catholics who bemoan the exhaustion of their continent’s Catholicism. “When they tell me they are tired,” he said, “I ask them what they are tired of.” Here in Asia, he added, “we have no time to lament and we never had anything to lose anyway.”

Before he became a leading ecclesiologist, the great Yves Congar wanted to spend his life in ecumenical work. He wrote the first serious 20th century book on ecumenism back in the 1930s but was forbidden to attend ecumenical conferences.  This kind of  suspicion is now thankfully long gone, though Protestants do reasonably still wonder why the Roman Church chooses not to become a full member of the World Council of Churches. As the Ecclesiological Investigations conferences show, there’s not much difference between ecumenism and ecclesiology, at least since Vatican II. You just cannot talk about the church any more and mean only the Roman Catholic Church. But it is quite wonderful to have three cardinals putting their collective approval on what, without them, would probably just be dismissed as what professors do with their long summers to keep themselves occupied.

Grieving at Pentecost

On Tuesday morning my best friend Lúcás Chan, S.J., died at the age of 46 of a heart attack.  He was the epitome of healthy living and his death is, well, overwhelming for all his friends and family.

I can’t get over that our grieving over Lúcás is going on on the eve of Pentecost.  It has made me understand Pentecost in a whole different way these days because I’m preaching on Sunday evening and I’m wondering, how can I preach tomorrow without mentioning that my best friend died? 

What I am learning these days is that grief is best when it’s with others.  That grief alone is a painful grief.  Jesus’ followers knew that too, and when the 12 are gathered in the upper room with Mary, they’re gathered there because they’re consoling one another. 

They’re not going there because they’re waiting for the Holy Spirit.  They’re going there because they are really sharing their grief.  But their grief is not that they’re consoling one another by saying: Are you OK?  Mary, how are you doing?  Peter, are you OK?  I don’t think that was their grief. 

I think they just talked about all the love that they experienced from Jesus and also  they wanted to hear from one another how Jesus was loved.  And so they wanted to hear how Peter loved Jesus, how Mary loved Jesus, how Andrew and John and the others loved Jesus.  And it’s in the hearing of these narratives that I think that they were consoled.  And it was in that space that the Spirit found its place to enter into the upper room.

The Pentecost is not simply a sign of the Spirit’s descent or the birth of the Church as we’ve always said.  It was a moment of people grieving, people consoling one another about the fact that they loved Jesus, who loved them and died for them.  In that expression of how they loved, they recognized their salvation and found a way to move forward by the Spirit. 

I think that’s why I gathered with his friends on Thursday at a memorial for Lúcás.  We gathered because each of us, in very different ways, knew and loved him.  For me, I am consoled when his friends, students, colleagues, brother Jesuits, parishioners from the Cantonese parishes, and others tell me stories about how much they love Lúcás and how much and how particularly, he loved them.

When we gather in this type of love we know that our main concern in consoling one another is not asking how we’re doing, but what did he mean to us?  In that expression, what did he mean to us, we encounter the consolation of the resurrection and then can be led by the Spirit.

Reading the Same-Sex Marriage Polls in Ireland

Ireland is holding a referendum on legalization of same-sex marriage on Friday, historic not just because of the matter at hand but also that it would be decided directly by national popular vote – not (as in the case of seventeen nations that have legalized it) by courts or legislators.

Polling suggests the Yes vote (that is, in favor of legalization) will win handily, but not everyone is so sure. One reason for the uncertainty is the inaccuracy of the polling preceding recent elections in Britain, which predicted a close finish that turned out anything but. Another is the possible role of the well-known social desirability bias – the tendency of a survey respondent not to state true preferences out of fear it might open them to criticism of their motivations. In the United States it’s become mostly associated (if not synonymous) with the Bradley effect, named for 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, an African American who was leading comfortably in pre-election and even exit polling but lost to his (white) opponent George Deukmejian. White voters who told pollsters they’d vote for Bradley did the opposite. Some reports say “a ‘shy’ No vote” is seen as a real possibility in Irish political circles, given

the social pressure to at least appear to be sympathetic to the Yes vote … being felt across the country following endorsements not just from all major political parties but state bodies too. Even Ireland’s police association, the Garda Representative Association, has come out for Yes, the first time it has taken a partisan position on a referendum. 

Some recent polling says more than 75 percent of Irish voters favor altering the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with most business and unions and even some Catholic priests publicly voicing support (the nation’s bishops are encouraging a No vote). The No side is saying that the social desirability bias is definitely at play. Dublin and other urban centers seem a definite Yes, but rural, western Ireland is trending No. Younger voters are in favor of legalization; middle-aged and older ones, less so.

An NPR report this week used the construction “conservative, Catholic Ireland” and also identified the country “one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.” Other reports use similar language, noting the more or less familiar details that it wasn’t until 1985 that Ireland legalized the sale of contraceptives, or until 1993 that it decriminalized homosexuality, or that abortion remains illegal. Would a Yes victory amount to “a heavyweight punch to the body of the church” in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic? Or, as Jesuit priest Oliver Rafferty, a visiting professor at Boston College, suggests in this New York Times piece, might a Yes victory actually offer a new opportunity for the church in Ireland? 

If it can no longer epitomize the broader culture in Ireland, Irish Catholicism can perhaps emerge as a more caring less overtly dogmatic and oppressive feature of the Irish landscape. Its focus might be more concentrated on ministering to peoples’ actual needs than on wielding power in Irish society.

Student debt comes home

The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion, four times the amount it was in 2004. For the Millennial generation who stepped into the job market mid-recession, these sobering numbers probably aren't surprising.

Last year, a branch of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt, bought and forgave almost four million in student loans held by students from Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profit college chains, which recently closed its doors without warning and filed for bankruptcy. The company was under scrutiny for over-charging students for poor-quality classes and misrepresenting its job placement rate, and by shutting down, it left many students without degrees but deeper in dept. Now that Corinthian’s unethical practices have been laid bare, Tuesday’s petition asking the Department of Education to cancel debt owed to colleges violating state law is one good step, but the legal case is complicated.

Proposals for addressing the crisis of student debt range from the relatively modest (easing the requirements for debt forgiveness in cases of fraud found in Obama’s proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights), to the sweeping, as Bernie Sanders’s proposal to address the root cause of student debt by making college tuition-free. Regardless, some kind of action is needed.

The more burdensome a college graduate’s debt obligation, the more difficult it is to establish a path toward economic security – building savings, for example, or buying a house – and to enter stabilizing relationships or start a family. Student debt also affects the well-being of the previous generation, as parents rally to help their children, sometimes by tapping into their home’s equity or retirement savings. And, when the time comes, who are they supposed to sell their homes to when an entire generation of graduates is too constrained by debt to buy? There are also new numbers on how rising tuition and student debt disproportionately hurts minorities. Hollis Phelps in Commonweal last year addressed this very topic: “In a cruel twist, the very means undertaken by my students to get themselves out of poverty threaten to continue that poverty through the debt that they now owe.” What might have once seemed like a young-person’s problem (and perhaps a privileged young-person’s problem) is now more widely felt.

We should understand the student debt crisis alongside the seriously weakened prospects for job growth that early Millennials faced upon graduation. As the first Millennial wave graduated, job definitions were changing as industries shifted and automation spread, and thanks to the recession, even the jobs that were supposed to be there as entrees to the middle-class were gone, or greatly diminished. Companies relied increasingly on contract labor to defray costs, including adjunct positions at universities (which didn’t help the students who went to graduate school hoping to ride out the economic downturn). All this meant that the “foot in the door” college was expected to provide meant something very different than it used to. If you could get an entry-level position, advancement in the same workplace over a long period of time was no longer a solid prospect. And as many discovered, an unpaid internship began to increasingly qualify you for… a different internship—a point that has even made its way into Hillary Clinton’s speeches (though apparently her foundation's policies don't necessarily reflect that concern).

Despite the occasional accusation of generational flightiness, which ignores these economic factors, Millennials say they want to make the same things happen as their parents did: a home, a stable partnership, and enough stability to raise kids. Policy changes will have to span the sprawling and slow-moving institutions of federal government, banks, and universities. But changes are slowly coming. In some states, companies that relied on unpaid internships to fill staff roles face greater restrictions. The complaints from Occupy Wall Street’s corridors about debt once sounded less urgent and pressing to the mainstream. Millennials faced a lack of institutional support to build a solid foundation, and now the problem is coming home.

The End of 'Mad Men'

In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.

People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.

Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.

A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.

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Abusing immigrants, something for everyone

We had a go around last week about nail salons (and I have been chided for treating it as another NYTimes hand-wringer). Okay. Sorry to scandalize the sensitive!

I pointed out in a comment on that post that our Immigration Law Imbroglio has a lot to do with the nail scandal as well as many other ongoing industrial/commercial abuses, such as restaurants, gas stations, street repairs, etc. Thanks to Republicans our laws have not been updated; thanks to Obama the laws, such as we have, are not being enforced; thanks to the economy of low-wage jobs, ever more immigrants will come by hook or crook and be abused, many of them by their own countrymen/women and by our failure to enforce the laws that should protect them as well as our very own low-wage workers.

Jim Dwyer (no hand-wringer) has a short piece not only about workers beings abused everywhere in NYC, but about the general failure of city and state to enforce the laws that should be protecting these workers, legal or not.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

Monday Morning Links: May 18

During this weekend's mass, Pope Francis canonized four women religious, two of whom were from the historical territory of Palestine.

Not long after the Vatican’s announcement that it would sign a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine, some outlets are reporting the Pope’s words to Mahmoud Abbas were “You are a man of peace,” though the Vatican Insider quotes him as saying “May you be a man of peace.”


What’s happened to cosmology? Aeon has an essay on how the field may be stalled (those readers may want to quibble with the author’s treatment of Christian history).

Today, President Obama will announce a ban and tighter restrictions on federal funding of military-style police equipment like armored Humvees and explosives. 
Back in 2011, The Atlantic looked at the history of how the police began to be armed this way after 9/11. 

Whether or not you’re interested in the sport of boxing, Kelefa Sanneh’s story on Floyd Mayweather is fascinating. “What should we do with athletes like Mayweather, who commit particularly disturbing crimes?” 

Video: Peter Steinfels with a Proposal for the Next Synod

Now on the homepage we're featuring “Contraception & Honesty: A Proposal for the Next Synod,” by Peter Steinfels. In this video interview, Peter explains what prompted him to write “Contraception & Honesty” and talks more about the issues he raises in it. There was a “glaring gap” in the work of last year’s synod, Peter says: "[T]he lack of attention to the question of contraception. Why did the synod appear to treat so perfunctorily the issue that was, and is, the starting point for the unraveling of Catholic confidence in the church’s sexual ethics and even its credibility about marriage?" From his story:

A synod that grabs headlines about remarried or cohabiting or same-sex Catholic couples but says nothing fresh about the spectacularly obvious rift between official teaching and actual behavior in Catholic married life is an invitation to cynicism. It could prove to be a crucial test of Pope Francis’s papacy.

But even if the real issue is acknowledged, “what can the upcoming synod do about it? How can the synod fathers, in a two-week session, realistically address a problem that has been festering since 1968?” First, talk candidly about “the pain and division that have wracked the church for decades now over contraception.” Then, “urge a renewed study renewed study of church teaching on marriage and sexuality” with 2018 as a target date. That would be the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae.

You can read all of “Contraception & Honesty” here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

Welcome and Unexpected News

The Vatican has completed a treaty in which it will recognize the State of Palestine; details to come.

The Vatican statement:  very brief.  If Francis does nothing else, this should be celebrated in helping to bring an end to the Israeli Occupation.

Will it encourage other nations to do the same? Probably not our own:

On "May 8 Obama told several of his interlocutors that he had decided, despite it all, to cast a veto on the French proposal regarding the Middle East conflict (for a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood), if and when it comes to a discussion and vote in the UN Security Council. This is despite recent assessments that the Americans had decided not to cast such a veto."  Al Monitor  (This report by an Israeli journalist is quite good on the dysfuntional U.S.-Israeli relationship.)

Could Obama use Francis for cover? Or will the U.S. become the outlier nation as others recognize Palestine?