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dotCommonweal Blog

New stories (& a new issue) on the website

We posted two new stories (and also our latest issue) to the website.

First, E.J. Dionne Jr. responds to last week's social sea change—the national movement against Confederate monuments and the Supreme Court's rulings on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act. He cautions liberals to be "candid" about conservative concerns about judicial activism and urges conservatives to recognize that "social movements, public opinion, the courts and the elected branches are not hermetically sealed off from each other."

Read the whole thing here.

And, our July 10 issue is up. In it, the editors expound on the "impressive, deeply challenging" vision of Francis's enyclical and what it requires of us.

One cannot separate ecology from economics, or economics from ethics, or ethics from politics. Above all, one cannot separate what Francis, following Benedict, calls “human ecology” from the rest of creation.

Read the editorial here.

Also in the issue Jay Neugeboren recounts when champion Max Baer confronted racism at a segregated bar in Chicago in 1932; Mollie O'Reilly describes what it's like to explain poverty to a 3-year-old; and Anthony Domestico reviews Anne Enright's latest novel The Green Road. Enright, Ireland's first fiction laureate, spoke with Digital Editor Dominic Presziosi about—among other things—family-as-fate, sex and death, John Paul II in Ireland, and writing. In case you missed the interview, read the whole thing here.

See the full table of contents for our July 10 issue here.

Why Pretend?

This week will be remembered as an important one in the history of this country, a very good week for most people on the left and a bad one for most on the right. For the second time, the Supreme Court protected the Affordable Care Act from a legal challenge that would have crippled it. The following day the Court ruled that gay Americans have a Constitional right to marry.

The ruling in the health-care case was a clear rejection of narrow Scalian textualism, a theory of statutory interpretation that has had great influence in the past couple of decades. Many would argue—along with the four dissenting Justices—that the ruling in the marriage case was a rejection of judicial restraint, a principle sometimes confused with textualism. As John Roberts reminded us this week, there is a difference

For most supporters of same-sex civil marriage, what mattered most was not the process but the outcome. That is understandable. When it comes to matters of the greatest personal urgency, most people are procedural pragmatists. They'll wait for a legislative victory if they have to, but if they can get what they want from the courts, they'll take it.  Proponents of same-sex marriage will no longer have to wait for the legislative process to catch up with public opinion. That might have taken years, and since there seemed to be little doubt about the final outcome—since it was only a matter of sooner or later—why not get it over with? Why make gay couples wait for democracy to slowly run its course when we could all see where it was headed. That, at any rate, was the pragmatic argument for having the Supreme Court settle this. (I don't say that was the only argument.)

Meanwhile, opponents of Obamacare will have to figure out how to get rid of it politically, having failed again to get the Supreme Court to kill or maim it for them. This means they'll have to wait for at least one more election.

The GOP response to the marriage decision has not been uniform. Many Republicans are eager to put this controversy behind them as quickly as possible so that they can concentrate on the truly important things: repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. It is useful to compare the range of views about same-sex marriage on display at the National Review with the much narrower range of views about the Obamacare decision: the flagship publication of the American right, though generally opposed to both decisions, makes room for supporters of same-sex marriage (Charles C. W. Cooke, Reihan Salam), while speaking with one hoarse voice against Obamacare. This contrast confirms the view that today's GOP is less a conservative party than an anti-government pro-Market party. Capitalism über alles.

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Jacob Lawrence—Again

Following up on a column I wrote about Jacob Lawrence's "The Great Migration," here is a NYTimes book review of the catalog accompanying the show now at MOMA (through September 7).

The review is by Isabel Wilkerson whose own master work, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the migration story through the lives of several of those who made the journey. An impressive work in its own right.

Lawerence's great 60-panel work will open at DC's Phillips Gallery in 2016.  All of this apropos of so many events of the last several weeks, beginning with Charleston.

John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

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Carbon Fasting

In my last post, I remarked that the archdiocese of Bombay had started the practice of carbon fasting for its Lenten practice of 2014 and repeated it in 2015.  I received in a variety of ways many positive responses to the blog.  While I know we are a long way from Lent, still in the wake of Laudato Si,’ we are being asked to change our ways immediately and carbon fasting seems like an exercise that can get us started.

In 2014, the Bombay archdiocese posted on their website a booklet, entitled “40 earth-saving ways to fast this lent.”  It is a simple set of reminders to reduce one’s carbon foot-print each year.   The archdiocese also made an app available that would text daily very specific practices to follow. 

Carbon fasting brings us into the world of an asceticism that’s mindful of our place in our environment.  This mindfulness helps to develop, I think, a new humility.  Prompted by the Magnificat, I have long defined humility as knowing one’s place in God’s world.  Carbon fasting helps us then to develop a 21st century humility, making us more mindful of our place in God’s creation.

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SCOTUS Votes 5-4 in Favor of Human Dignity

The Supreme Court today issued its opinion strking down anti-marriage equality laws in all 50 states. Writing for the majority, swing vote Justice Kennedy concluded his opinion with this moving paragraph:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

The Court's argument was based on four "principles and traditions" which show that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply equally to all. They are:

  1. The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. (Here Kennedy cites Loving v. Virginia, which struck down interracial marriage bans.)
  2. The right to marry "supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals," and same-sex couples have the same right "to enjoy intimate association."
  3. Marriage "safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education." This doesn't mean that everybody has to procreate in order to marry civlly: "Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate, so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate."
  4. "[M]arriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order," and excluding same-sex couples is "demeaning" to them. 

While this is not a decision that Church leaders are likely to cheer, it is striking to me how strongly these principles echo Catholic doctrine on marriage:

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Jiggery-pokery

Ever since reading David Cole’s compelling account of the legal issues at stake in King v. Burwell, I've had trouble imagining how any intelligent and intellectually honorable person could support the plaintiffs in this case. So, being stuck at home with a bad cold on the day the Supreme Court announced its ruling, I wandered over to the website of the National Review in search of intelligent, intellectually honorable rebuttals of the majority opinion.

Sure enough, two intelligent men, Yuval Levin and George Will, were both arguing, with as much drama as they could muster, not only that John Roberts and the others Justices in the majority were wrong, but that their decision was a precedent that would do lasting damage to America’s Constitutional tradition. According to Levin and Will, the majority’s interpretation of a disputed provision in the Affordable Care Act was, in effect, an attempt by judges to revise badly written legislation in order to rescue it from its internal contradictions. Yet another example of judicial overreach, about which conservatives are forever complaining (and sometimes with good reason). Here’s Levin:

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Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

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Roberts’s Pragmatism, Scalia’s Precedent

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has for the second time helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, again by seeing sensibly through to what the intent of the law is. Not persuaded by plaintiffs’ contention that the four words “established by the state” forbid the federal government from providing subsidies in states that do not have their own exchanges, he also noted the consequences of cutting subsidies for millions of people:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. … Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them … If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

Antonin Scalia again has put himself at the center of a decision with the petulant language he has chosen – this time precedent-setting – in siding with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the minority: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” he wrote, which apparently is the first time the term “SCOTUS” has appeared in a SCOTUS decision. There was also this: “The cases [concerning the ACA] will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.” Finally, Scalia departed from custom by concluding his dissent with a concise “I dissent,” forgoing the adverb that typically divides the declarative: “respectfully.” Though it could be argued his use of it in previous dissents may have implied its absence.

Stop the Glock

John Cassidy makes a good point on his New Yorker blog: 

"Evidently, the American political system still has the capacity to rouse itself and restrict the display of offensive flags. Unfortunately, doing anything about guns, which kill more than thirty thousand people a year in the U.S., is still beyond the nation."

Response to David Brooks

Last February, American climate change deniers used the bitterly-cold temperatures to make a political point. Senator James Inhofe famously tossed a snowball across the Senate chamber. But here’s the problem: February 2015 was actually the second warmest on record. If you look at the maps, you will see a world of red with a big blue patch across the eastern half of North America. In other words, the abnormal cold was a purely local phenomenon, and looking at it in isolation would present a highly misleading picture.

Yet this is akin to what David Brooks does in his recent column criticizing Pope Francis and his encyclical. He misses the point that the entire global economy is interconnected, even though Pope Francis repeats his “everything is connected” mantra over and over. One of Brooks’ main points is that richer countries have healthier environments and should get credit for it. But he ignores that fact that the direct counterpart of this is often environmental degradation in poorer countries. Pope Francis is pretty blunt when he talks about the damage done by multinationals seeking short-term financial return. Quoting the Argentinean bishops, he notes that they leave behind “great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers..”

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Illusions Here and Abroad

Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

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Forgiveness & the Flag

Hearing the names of the nine victims in Charleston read at Mass on Sunday, it was hard not to hear as well the statements of forgiveness from their survivors made at last Friday’s bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you” – the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance – became the headline of Saturday’s print edition of The New York Times, but it’s the clips of Collier and others in court that truly convey the power of the moment, the grace of those whose loved ones were taken. It’s impossible not to be moved, or even awed—as a number of pundits admitted to being when the footage was aired.

Inevitably, much has been written and said about “forgiveness” in the days since, some of it by Cornell West. In an appearance Monday on New York public radio he called the survivors’ statements of forgiveness, and the favorable response to them, “bad theology.” The forgiveness, he said, “is premature… We have to put love at the center of this but forgiveness is something that comes further down the line… [This] has remnants of the niggerized Christianity that has been operating in the history of the black church….” Of course, provocation is West’s main mode. But his co-guest on the segment, Amy Butler of Riverside Church, allowed that he was getting at something important. The survivors’ words of forgiveness, she said, “are deeply moving but they call us to something deeper, and they remind us of a sin in our country that cannot be ignored anymore… [A] voice of remorse also needs to come from a system and a nation….”

The possibility of forgiveness from family members is one issue; the possibility (if not the likelihood) of its appropriation and use as absolution from any further responsibility for or concern with the underlying causes of the attack is another.

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Race of the absurd

The murders in Charleston have summoned all the cliches about race, racism, black, white, etc., that are part of summertime news. The parishioners at Emanuel AME Church mourn the people they knew and loved and their relatives and friends weep and forgive. The rest of us should be sorting through cause and effect. It might actually sober everyone up.

This morning's NYTimes looks at the organization that inspired Roof to murder and it looks at who is the beneficiary of its political contributions.

"What is Whitness" in the NYTimes Sunday Review reminded us that once upon a time scientists divined many more races, Celts, Saxons, Southern Italians, etc, than they divine today.

And we have had a couple go-rounds here at dotCommonweal about the social construction of race. When Did You Become White?     How White is White? And Who is White?

Literary Links

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, has a piece in the New York Times Magazine about Charleston, race, and the problem with white liberalism:

The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us. Our deaths inside a system of racism existed before we were born. The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination. To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” And, as my friend the critic and poet Fred Moten has written: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” This other world, that world, would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here.

William Giraldi, whose work has been reviewed on this blog before, writes on the figure of the Catholic novelist:

If my being a Catholic must be predicated on the belief that the God of the Israelites decided to inseminate a peasant woman in the Levant in order to birth a human sacrifice who would rise from the dead and redeem the world, and whose resurrection would then inspire an apostolic company who could interpret the sacred while taking my money and demanding my servitude, then you’ll forgive me, but I can’t call myself a Catholic. In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy admits: “I am not sorry to have been a Catholic”—“this sensuous life,” she calls it, and like Percy and O’Connor she speaks of “the sense of mystery and wonder,” of how in certain “exalted moments of altruism the soul was fired with reverence.” I’d like to second that: I am not sorry to have been a Catholic. An upbringing in the Church has, I suspect and hope, outfitted me well as a storyteller.

James Salter died last Friday. Here is Nick Paumgarten on his life and work:

He was modest yet certain about his talents, anxious yet cool about his reputation, and somehow both demure and effusive about his influences. When I asked him where he thought his style came from, he replied, “Who knows.” And yet, he loved to talk about his favorite writers and what he had learned from them. Still, a knack is a knack. “In a way, it’s the way certain people can keep a tune and others can’t keep a tune,” he said. “Certain people can keep a word tune, so to speak, and certain people cannot. And, above all, certain people can tell a story, and other people can’t. They don’t hear that point where something else has to come. This is an ordinary talent you can hear in any barroom. You’re sitting there listening, and it’s a terrific story that you just told, or that he’s just told. And somebody else is telling one and your mind is wandering. You’re waiting to interrupt. What is that? They don’t mean not to be interesting. It’s not a gene or anything. It’s just that little thing, like keeping a tune.”

'Peripheral' Sources for 'Laudato Si’ '

Pope Francis’s new environmental encyclical cites the usual sources. In addition to Scripture, we find the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals and addresses of his papal predecessors, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, his own Evangelii Gaudium, and others.

Most surprising, however, is Francis’s turn to the documents of national and regional bishops’ conferences.  He cites one USCCB document (no. 52), one from the Canadians (no. 85), two from the Germans (nos. 48 and 69), and one from the Portuguese (no. 159). I counted twenty-one references to environmental documents from episcopal conferences.  Only the five mentioned above represent North America and Europe. The remaining sixteen refer to documents from bishops’ conferences in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.  Twice he cites the Latin American Bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document, on which he worked (nos. 38 and 54).

These references are doubly striking.  First, Pope Francis is the self-proclaimed “man from the end of the world,” who appoints new cardinals from places many Americans have never heard of.  As the pope of the periphery, Francis does not treat such questions as the environment and the family exclusively, or even primarily, in terms of perspectives dominant in Washington, Bonn, London, or even Rome. He wants to hear the voices of the churches from the Global South. Americans are going to have to get used to the fact that they make up only about 4% of the world’s Catholics. As this encyclical makes clear, Pope Francis does not map easily on to the landscape of cultural and political strife in the United States. His upcoming visits to Washington and Philadelphia will, I suspect, make this even clearer.

Second, these twenty-one references to teaching documents of episcopal conferences signal Francis’s own vision that the church of which he is chief pastor and teacher is a collegial body.

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To See Unto Praise

In her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson describes Darwin as "a beholder," citing the first three words of the first chapter of his On the Origin of Species: "When we look...". In this looking, Johnson claims that Darwin was not simply the disinterested observer that some, who still hold to the myth of scientific objectivity, would have us believe. Rather, Johnson claims that Darwin was a seer who beholds what is in order to penetrate more deeply into its fundamental structures, and, in so doing, is able to do justice not only to its presence but also to its future. This is to say that Darwin's theory of evolution is not simply an account of what is and how it came to be, but it also has something to say about what is to come, namely that it is likely to be at the same time completely continuous with and unpredictable in terms of our present reality.

It is this latter unpredictability that philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour argues is lost on contemporary neo-Darwinians, like Richard Dawkins, and it holds the key to understanding what makes Darwin's reverential beholding distinct from the mere observations of his most fervent would-be disciples. In his article "Will Non-Humans Be Saved?" Latour claims that the revolutionary discovery of "Saint Darwin," which makes him a later-day "Father of the Church," was that organisms are "creativity all the way down." What this means is that in emerging from a process that begins in the radical contingency of random mutation, each new species is a creation ex nihilo that in coming from nowhere, goes nowhere. Rather than being determined by evolution as if by a mechanical process that leaves no room for artistry, what Darwin saw when he looked at nature was a living composition that unfurled across time like a piece of music in which each new movement was completely unprecedented and yet instantly recognizable.

In his new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis can be found singing much the same tune, even if the lyrics are those of the slightly more orthodox saint - Francis of Assisi.

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“Indian Ambassadors of the Environment” or “Reading Laudato Si’ in downtown Pune”

In this morning’s Sakaal Times, Pune’s Bishop Thomas Dabre, while promoting Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, added that his diocese would promote greater austerity and sustainability measures across Pune.

His response caught the general reaction of Catholics here in India. In fact all the major newspapers, The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Sakaal Times covered the encyclical’s launch favorably. Interestingly the only dissenting voice reported in the newspapers was Jeb Bush’s!

Indian Catholics already recognize the need to respond to climate change. For instance, Sr. Julia George, SSPS, a lawyer who advocates for women domestic workers told me that women bear the brunt of environmental challenges in India. In rural and urban areas, women are the ones who need to find and carry the water, for instance, that is needed for their families or for those for whom they work. As the environment worsens, so does the plight of women throughout India.

Sr. Nameeta, OCV, a physician from Mumbai, asks, "Can we sing a Canticle of Praise to the Lord, when we wound Mother Earth everyday? This is an enigma. The encyclical exposes our hypocrisy."  Like other Catholics, she believes deeply that the time for the encyclical is now.

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This Week's Episode

It is tempting just to look away from the news about the Charleston shooting. Such incidents now seem to function in our culture as a kind of hyper-reality television. As new details emerge, we bat them around in conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. We strike the attitudes of baffled outrage that decency seems to require. After a few days or weeks the outrage becomes stale, the story slips from the headlines, and we all move on—until the next horrible shooting a few months later. In the meantime, nothing changes. Our gun laws and our mental-health system remain the same.

In this case, there is also the issue of racism, about which much of the country seems to be in denial. Jon Stewart called it an open wound on last night’s Daily Show, which became, for one episode, a comedy-free program. This is not an original metaphor, but it's a good one. Open wounds become infected if you ignore them, and that’s what seems to be happening with racism during the second term of our first black president. We can’t expect our politicians to make the racism go away—it’s too deep and complex a problem to be solved by policy alone—but they must do the little they can. At the very least, they must acknowledge that the problem persists. 

Our gun laws, which indirectly cause so many real wounds, are not exactly an open wound. They are an embarrassing anachronism preserved by a chronic irrationality. We could fix them tomorrow if we wanted to. Not enough of us do because of ideology—and, in particular, because of an ahistorical idolatry of the Second Amendment. Other advanced countries have to deal with mental illness and racism, but they don’t have to persuade themselves that periodic mass shootings are just part of life, like car accidents. As President Obama sugested, the difference is our gun laws.

How crazy was the shooter? We don’t know yet. If his belief that he could start another civil war by murdering nine people in a black church is what proves he’s crazy, how much crazier is he than all the people who talk about needing their guns so they can overthrow a tyrannical federal government? Or, if it’s his monstrous racism that’s supposed to prove he’s crazy, then were the lynchings that used to take place in South Carolina just an outbreak of mental illness? “Mentally ill” is the term we now use to explain many, if not most, acts of individual evil. For collective wickedness, we have other words. What is our word for whatever keeps the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina’s capitol building two days after the massacre in Charleston?

Brian Williams returns

Although a big part of me wanted former NBC news anchor Brian Williams to be fired after he embellished and even downright fabricated stories about his reporting in the field, I can accept his just announced return to a new and different job at MSNBC.
Lester Holt has held the NBC anchor chair since Williams was suspended without pay for six months, and it would have been unforgivable on two counts—at least among journalists—to give Williams his old job back.


One, Holt has done a fine job. He's more Walter Cronkite, while Williams is more Johnny Carson. Two, even though Williams lied mostly on talk shows, not from the anchor chair, he shouldn't get to lead a news organization. Not even if viewers—and therefore advertisers—don't care. Surely corporate news executives retain, or feel compelled to exhibit, at least that much decency.


But given that Williams has apologized and been humiliated for his sins, I don't think it's necessary that he be drummed entirely and permanently out of the news business. I must say, however, that during my years in the business I've seen non-celebrity journalists drummed out for less.


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