The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.
Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.
Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”
“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.
Via Rick Garnett. Congratulations to Rick and his co-bloggers.
Last Wednesday, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced that he would not charge Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis officials with failing to report suspected child abuse in the case of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer. (He's still investigating several others.) In November 2012, Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct and seventeen counts of possession of child pornography. He's serving a five-year prison term. Civil authorities began investigating after Minnesota Public Radio reported that the archdiocese had known about Wehmeyer's sexual misbehavior for years, failed to inform his parish staff, and left him in ministry--with disastrous results. (In another case, Washington County prosecutors announced that they would not charge a priest with possession of child pornography--more on that later in the week.)
Minnesota law requires a priest to notify the police when he suspects child abuse--within twenty-four hours, unless he acquires the information during confession or spiritual counseling. The archdiocese claims it received an allegation against Wehmeyer on June 19, 2012, and reported it to police the following day. "It is our belief," Choi explained at last week's press conference, "that a criminal jury would conclude that members of the archdiocese did not fail to comply with the mandatory reporting law in this case." At the same event, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith claimed officers lacked probable cause for a subpoena or a warrant to search archdiocesan files. Hours later, MPR published a document signed by Archbishop John Nienstedt indicating that the archdiocese had received the allegation on June 18--two days before the archdiocese reported it to the police.Read more
Listening to the Gospel reading today, Mark 5: 1-20, about the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, I remembered that great poem by Richard Wilbur, "Matthew 8, 28 ff," concerning the same story as recorded in Matthew. We (okay, not we…I) always seem to pay too much attention to the healing of the demoniac and not enough to the unwillingness to “resign/Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.”
Last week was "Catholic Schools Week" in the United States; a program dedicated to celebrating and promoting the vast amount of good that Catholic schools have done in this country.
I think that's all to the good--Catholic schools should be celebrated and promoted. They are a wonderful gift. I do get a little worried, however, when the celebration and promotion takes the form of generalized contempt and pity for students who attend public school. I am not disinterested: my father was a public school principal, I attended public school, and got a good education at public school. And I know lots of fine, upstanding Catholics who also attended public school, and either Catholic or public or private colleges.
I think most parents try to make the best decision for their child, given their resources. I think the decision about where to send a particular to child to school is always highly specific, looking at the child, the schools, the options, and the needs of other kids.Read more
George Weigel's syndicated column is called "The Catholic Difference," presumably because in it Weigel lays out the proper way for Catholics to view the world -- and corrects the errors of those non-Catholics (or inadequately formed Catholics) who keep getting things wrong.
I often find that my view of things does not quite line up with what Weigel insists is the "Catholic" position. For example, the January 15 column, "What Popes Can and Can't Do," features this illustrative anecdote:
At an academic conference years ago, a distinguished Catholic philosopher remarked (perhaps hyperbolically) that “If the pope said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I’d believe him.” An even more distinguished Catholic philosopher gave the correct, and far more Catholic, response: “If the Holy Father said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I would say publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”
I, meanwhile, would have said the "correct" and "Catholic" response is "Sorry, Holy Father, but that's not right." I probably wouldn't be all that private about it, either.
With this little story, Weigel is attempting to explain that popes can't go around changing established church doctrine on a whim, which is true enough. (He also says, "it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this." Which of course is why we need George Weigel -- now more than ever!) They do have a little more influence on church doctrine than they do on basic math, but we'll set that aside. Weigel is also taking this opportunity to throw more cold water on the hopes so many non-conservatives have been nurturing since Pope Francis's election. But the occasion of Weigel's warning is odd -- and not just because it follows his proclaiming the Wall Street Journal "America's best newspaper" and praising "the openness of the Journal's op-ed pages to serious Catholic argument on numerous issues." (I've been waiting for their Francis-inspired editorial "Trickle-Down Economics Reconsidered," but I think I must have missed it.)
What has Weigel worked up is a one-sentence description of Pope Francis in a space-filling listicle that ran in the WSJ, "People to Watch in 2014."Read more
As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present the U.S. framework for two-states in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the rhetoric is heating up. And so is the politics. There is a rich trove of news and opinions this week-end some of it focused on the impact of BDS on Israel and on the Israeli government's reaction; some of it focused on U.S.-Israeli Relations.
PM Netanyahu and Israeli cabinet members: "strongly criticized groups who are threatening a boycott of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. Their remarks were a sharp retort to Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned a day earlier that the risk of boycotts would intensify should the current Middle East peace effort fail."
The State Dept retort: "Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts,... At the Munich Security Conference yesterday, he spoke forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life. In response to a question about the peace process, he also described some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians. His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.” Even a little wishy-washy there at the end sent Netanyahu off the cliff. NYTimes.
And there are these: "Israeli Official Paints Bleak Scenario of Failed Peace Talks" / "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners" / "Loosing the Propaganda War" / "Why Israel Fears the Boycott" / "A Star Stumbles in the Settlements"
Pope Francis has told University of Notre Dame officials he hopes the school will "continue to offer unambiguous testimony" in defense of the church's moral teaching and freedom.
This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!
It seems to me that the pope's use of the word "continue" (emphasis added) makes it hard to interpret this as a rebuke of the school, although that has not stopped people from trying. There is no doubt Francis is setting out expectations for Notre Dame and other Catholic universities, but that's as far as he goes. "Continue" sounds like another way of saying, "Keep up the good work." Perhaps what this boils down to is that Francis prefers encouragement to condemnation as a management tool. A lot of management experts would agree.
Compare the encouraging tone of his remarks with the rhetoric of the scores of bishops who assailed the university in 2009 for granting an honorary degree to President Obama. For example, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who wrote to Notre Dame's president that this was "a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States."
When it comes to cashing in on Pope Francis Fever, Rolling Stone has one-upped Esquire, with its silly "best-dressed man" designation. They didn't even have to make a joke, like the New Yorker, when they made Francis their cover model. The Rolling Stone cover is essentially a joke come to life: Francis, the Rock Star Pope.
The article, though, is no joke. I've seen some dismissive sniffing and some references to "hate-reading" among fellow pope-watchers, but Mark Binelli's piece is not the superficial profile you might be expecting. In fact, there's a lot to admire in it.
Its main flaw, and I will grant Fr. Lombardi this, is its over-the-top dismissal of Pope Benedict, and its occasional resort to what Lombardi aptly called "crudeness." He said "surprising crudeness," but given the venue, there's no surprise; crudeness is an essential element of serious journalism in Rolling Stone, a kind of self-conscious tic, like the gratuitous shots of topless women in HBO's prestige dramas. Hence, this, a few paragraphs in:Read more
In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would veto any effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Previous White House threats seemed a bit oblique, now his direct threat has pulled some Democratics back from the brink of voting for the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" introduced by Senators Mendez (D.) and Kirk (R.). Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans to stand back from supporting the bill, now opposes it. All to the good.
Paul Pilar, senior fellow at Georgetown and The Brookings Institutions as well as a former CIA officer, has a long memory. He enumerates all the ways over the years in which relations with Iran have come under fire, and not just for their nuclear program. In the National Interest. He expects that as negotiations continue other and older reasons to bring down Iran will emerge.
Long-time Commonweal contributor Cathleen Kaveny has joined the faculty at Boston College as the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor, a position that includes appointments in both the department of theology and the law school. Cathy is the first in BC's history to hold a joint appointment. Her colleagues at BC are understandably enthusiastic about working with Kaveny:
“Professor Kaveny’s appointment places Boston College at the forefront of scholarship in both law and theology, with her most recent work offering critical insights on how American law engages highly contested moral debates in an increasingly diverse society,” said Law School Dean Vincent Rougeau. “She will provide an exciting link between the Law School and the College of Arts and Sciences by offering cross-listed courses that explore the intersection of key legal and theological concepts such as justice, mercy, and complicity with evil. We are thrilled to have her join us.”
You can read the entire press release here. Feel free to join us as we extend our congratulations!
Someone may yet do a more substantial post on Mark Binelli’s Pope Francis cover story in Rolling Stone, but for the moment I thought I’d pull out quotes from three of the people interviewed. Context-free, maybe, but how much is needed?
Thomas Reese: “The people Francis is going to have the most trouble with are the ideologues. They’re basically like the Tea Party. They’ve made up their minds. They don’t get it. And unless they go through some major conversion, they ain’t gonna get it.”
Cornell West: “Pope Francis is a gift from heaven, a prophetic voice willing to be a critic of capitalism and imperialism. I don’t want to fetishize the pope. He heads a deeply patriarchal and homophobic organization that I’m critical of. But I love who he is, in terms of what he says, and the impact of his words on progressive forces around the world.”
Unnamed street vendor outside St. Peter’s, when asked if the increased crowds under Francis have been good for business, answers in “perfect, New York-inflected English, ‘Naw, this guy, all he does is talk about the poor, and so he’s bringing in these poorer tourists from places like Argentina. They ain’t got no money, these people! When Ratzinger was pope, Germans would pull up on a bus. They’re organized, they spend! Now, everyone wants a discount.’”
UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.
In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.Read more
even if John Bohener scowled and Biden grinned. Why can't the country come around to what Obama proposed tonight for the country? Text.
American folk music icon Pete Seeger passed away at 94, reports the New York Times. Money quote:
“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
Pete was an activist-singer, standing up for common folk and on the side of the underdog his whole life. I saw Pete in concert many times, always captured by his infectious joy and the power of the music he shared. Pete sang hope. Pete sang justice. Pete sang love. And Pete always made sure everybody sang along.
Here's what Arlo Guthrie said on his Facebook status:
I usually do a little meditation and prayer every night before I go to sleep - Just part of the routine. Last night, I decided to go visit Pete Seeger for a while, just to spend a little time together, it was around 9 PM. So I was sitting in my home in Florida, having a lovely chat with Pete, who was in a hospital in New York City. That's the great thing about thoughts and prayers- You can go or be anywhere.
I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time. I'd grown up that way - loving the Seegers - Pete & Toshi and all their family.
I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I'd been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn't think of anything that didn't sound trite or plain stupid. "They'll say something appropriate in the news," we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night.
"Arlo" he said, sounding just like the man I've known all of my life, "I guess I'll see ya later." I've always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. "Pete," I said. "I guess we will."
I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 AM when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away.
"Well, of course he passed away!" I'm telling everyone this morning. "But that doesn't mean he's gone."
Of all the things President Obama said in the long New Yorker profile-interview last week, I found it interesting how many people seized on his remark that he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. Syria? The ACA? Obstructionist Congressional Republicans? There were about seventeen-thousand other words to choose from, but with the two-week gap between conference championships and Super Bowl Sunday, maybe people were itching for something, anything, football-related to talk about (surely it wasn’t just another reason to criticize Obama for positing “imaginary” offspring and apologizing for America?).
The president said something similar this time last year, only then it was that he’d have to think “long and hard about it.” Of course, the twelve months between have served up still more stories of players now living with (and dying from) the effects of catastrophic brain injury tied to playing football, and still more data confirming the connection. So maybe it’s understandable that his position has solidified. And yet then came what he called his “caveat emptor,” that current NFL players “know what they’re buying into. It’s no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
Just how responsible are fans and viewers of football for the well-being of the people playing it?Read more
The Republicans have finally gotten serious about health care reform. The bad news for them is that they are four years too late.
Earlier today, Senators Hatch (R-UT); Burr (R-NC); and Coburn (R-OK) released the details of their Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility and Empowerment Act (a.k.a. “Patient CARE Act). Hatch, in particular, is no stranger to health care issues, having co-sponsored the State Childrens Health Insurance Program back in 1997.
The bill largely follows the outlines of a health care reform proposal developed by a group of conservative policy wonks dubbed the “reformocons.” In an article published in Commonweal’s print edition in December, I questioned whether the wonks would find Republican politicians willing to carry their water. I am happy to have been proved wrong, as the return of Republicans to the actual work of legislating is a welcome development.Read more
Our special issue on theological books is now live on the website.
Among the highlights: another excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book on ecological vocation; Bernard G. Prusak on the principles governing the resort to war vs. the principles governing the conduct of it (subscription); and Gabriel Said Reynolds on John L. Allen Jr.’s The Global War on Christians (subscription). Plus, Michael Robbins writes on David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, an excerpt of which follows:
…[T]he New Atheists ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them. Daniel Dennett wants to know “if God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod?”—thereby revealing his lack of acquaintance not only with Augustine and Thomas but with Aristotle.
It was Aristotle who wrote that “one and the same is the knowledge of contraries.” Denys Turner, in his recent Thomas Aquinas (which makes a fine companion piece to The Experience of God), puts the matter like this: “Unless…what believers and atheists respectively affirm and deny is the same for both, they cannot be said genuinely to disagree.”
There are, then, a great many people who say “God” and mistakenly believe that they have the notion, at least, in common. Hart is interested in clarifying the notion, and one of his deeper points is that the major theistic religions do indeed have something in common when they say “God.” In a churlish review for Harper’s, Jane Smiley writes that Hart “is robustly convinced that there is only one definition of God, and that is his own.” She then quotes Hart’s “own” definition: “one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”
As Hart makes plain, however, and as anyone even slightly familiar with the history of metaphysics is aware, that definition is not Hart’s, but one shared by most major religious and philosophical traditions. It is as much Aristotle’s definition as it is Moses Maimonides’s and Thomas Aquinas’s and Mulla Sadra’s and, indeed, Spinoza’s. It describes equally Brahman and Yahweh. Nor is Hart here proposing a dilution of the real differences among religions, à la Huston Smith; he is interested in what the theistic traditions disclose, a common conception of the ultimate transcendental ground of being.
See the full table of contents for the February 7 issue here.
from this morning's homily by Pope Francis, commenting on the anointing of David:
But, Father, I have read in a newspaper that a bishop has done such a thing, or a priest who has done this thing.’ Oh yes, I read it, too. Tell me, though: do the papers carry news of what great charity so many priests, so many priests in so many parishes of the city and the countryside, perform? Of the great work they do in carrying their people forward? No? This is not news. It is the same as always: a single falling tree makes more noise than a forest that grows. Today, thinking about this anointing of David, it will do us good to think of our brave, holy, good, faithful bishops and priests, and pray for them. We are here today thanks to them.
Prayers as well for the Ursuline Sisters on this feast of Saint Angela Merici!
On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago released six thousand pages of documents related to the cases of thirty priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. The files, made public as part of a settlement with victims' attorneys, offer a predictably depressing view of archdiocesan failures over the past several decades. You know the dirge: priests quietly shuttled from parish to parish, civil authorities kept in the dark about some cases (and colluding with church officials to keep others from public scrutiny), laypeople and clergy failing to report allegations, bishops refusing to suspend dangerous priests.
For releasing these documents and for making public the names of known abuser-priests, Cardinal Francis George--archbishop of Chicago since 1997--takes some credit. "Publishing for all to read the actual records of these crimes," he wrote in a letter warning Chicagoans about the document dump, "raises transparency to a new level." Perhaps. But he didn't volunteer these files. They wouldn't have come out if it hadn't been for victims who pressed for their release as part of a legal settlement. Still, it's difficult to take seriously Cardinal George's brief for transparency when he seems so intent on obfuscating his own role in the scandal.Read more