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Split Decisions

ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.

At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.

This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.

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An Heir to Both Stevens & Pound

Are you Team Pound or Team Stevens? It’s a question that readers of modern poetry often end up asking themselves. All would agree that both Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are important to the history of modern poetry; that, without The Cantos and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” without “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Plain Sense of Things,” modern poetry would be a fundamentally different thing. But agreeing on a poet’s importance doesn’t mean agreeing on a poet’s value, and, as Marjorie Perloff and other critics have noted, lovers of Pound tend not to be lovers of Stevens and vice versa.

Moreover, choosing sides here seems to express something more than mere personal preference. Do you believe that poetry is about subjectivity and the imagination? That it speaks not so much to the world as to “the delicatest ear of the mind,” as Stevens put it? That, in other words, poetry is the self speaking to the self about the self? Then you’re probably on Team Stevens, along with Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and others. Or do you believe that poetry is about hard surfaces and sharp angles, about particulars rather than essences or types? And that it should—indeed, must—include not just the self but also history and politics and economics? Then you’re probably on Team Pound—and a venerable team it is, counting Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie among its members. To love both Pound and Stevens is akin to loving both the Yankees and the Red Sox: it’s possible, but not particularly likely.*

Lawrence Joseph, whose “In Parentheses” appears in the current issue of Commonweal, is one of the rare poets—really the only one I can think of—whose work belongs to the traditions of both Pound and Stevens. Joseph has been hailed as one of the great poets of post-9/11 America, and rightly so. His most recent collection, Into It (2005), charted the serious damage done by America’s endless wars—damage done to those we’ve invaded and to ourselves. In “Rubaiyat,” for instance, we see soldiers, aided by digital cameras and the Pentagon’s Military Diaries Project, turning horror into home movies: “soldiers starring in their own / war movies, training digital cameras // on themselves—a child is put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine. / Politics? Personified.” Joseph trains our eyes to see politics personified—to remember the particular, real, and mangled bodies that are elided beneath the abstract label of the War on Terror. The child’s body is mangled, and so too is America’s politics and its soul. War begets war, violence begets violence, and our war footing now seems permanent: “Cyberwar and permanent / war, Third Wave War, neocortical war, / Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch / War …”

Yet what I want to focus on isn’t Joseph’s strength as a poet of war and its aftermaths, although his strength as such is considerable. Rather, I want to talk about how Joseph’s work bridges the gap between two very different conceptions of modern poetry: the meditative, self-interrogating poetry of Stevens and the fractured, history-interrogating poetry of Pound.

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Lecturing the Lecturer

A quietly provocative op-ed in the Times asks, “Are College Lectures Unfair?” Its author, journalist Annie Murphy Paul, pulls together several strands of research to argue that as a form of education, the lecture may be “biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent.”

The question being addressed is not whether lectures belong in college, whether they’re efficient or not, or cost-effective, or obsolete in this online age of Massive Open Online Courses. Not any of that, but rather whether the lecture format itself – developed over centuries and installed at the heart of Western models of higher education – favors some groups and/or types of students over others; whether it is inherently, structurally invidious. Ms. Paul writes:

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

Accordingly Paul advocates pedagogical approaches that de-emphasize lectures in favor of what she calls “active learning.” The “supports” she mentions as part of this approach include frequent quizzes; online “checkup” testing on key concepts before class, and various other methods of feedback and reinforcement deployed to help students “become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.” Well, who wouldn’t benefit from that? Indeed, Paul cites research showing that all students do benefit -- but that “women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

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Magister, No

ROME—In the beginning was the letter. And the letter was published. By Sandro Magister, longtime Vaticanista, sometime critic of this papacy, and current insinuator of the idea that one of those responsible for leaking the text may be the most famous resident of Casa Santa Marta.

Last week, Magister published a letter sent by several cardinals to Pope Francis, criticizing the synod process for favoring those who want to change church practice on a range of contested issues. The letter, which was sent to the pope before the synod began, received a direct response when Francis delivered an unscheduled address on the second day of the proceedings. He reminded the synod fathers that he had personally approved of the synod process, and urged them not to fall victim to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” (That memorable line was amusingly interpreted by the camptastically named “Xavier Rynne II”—who has been aiming his firehose of verbiage at the goings-on here since the synod began. And by George if he doesn’t think the pope’s phrase wasn’t really referring to those who have been hoping for some change out of this meeting. XR2 assures that the leak “certainly did not involve the Holy Father.” So that’s a relief.)

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'He Came Not for the Healthy'

Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.

First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?

I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Has the Synod Turned a Corner?

ROME—Hoping to see a resolution to the most neuralgic issues being debated at the Synod of the Family by the time it ends next weekend? Don’t hold your breath. That’s the message that came through during today’s briefing at the Holy See Press Office. While “there is confidence” among the synod fathers that “something can emerge from this process of fermentation,” according to Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, there is no consensus on questions related to Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexuality, and others living in “irregular relationships.”

That makes it highly unlikely that the final summary document, which synod fathers will vote on—paragraph by paragraph—later this week, will include definitive language on any of the contested issues. That doesn’t mean Pope Francis won’t step in at some point—my money is on a post-synodal study commission—and it certainly doesn’t mean that these three weeks of discernment have been a waste. To the contrary, as Francis made clear in his remarks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the synod on Saturday, the synodality established by this meeting of bishops is a preview of what he wants to see from the whole church. “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing.” He continued: “It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Synoding is hard work—this has been a constant refrain of all the synod fathers who have appeared at the press conferences. And who could doubt it? It’s not unusual for participants to put in twelve-hour days. Coleridge spoke of a sense of “weariness” among the synod fathers. “I have a strong sense that we wonder how we’re going to get through to Sunday morning [when the synod concludes]—how we’re going to write a final document.”

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Cardinal Wuerl Has Had Enough

ROME—In an interview with America magazine, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., makes it clear that he is having none of the agitation against Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family. Nothing has been “rigged.” Nothing has been “manipulated.” Rather, the cardinal approves of this synod process, which is much more open than any other anyone can remember. “I see it as widening the participation of the bishops (compared to the past),” the cardinal said. He reiterated many of the same points in his interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

As for those who have been critical of this synod, he told Gerard O’Connell:

There are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality.

What about those who suggest the pope has been puppet-mastering the whole shebang?

I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

O’Connell asked what the cardinal thought would come out of the synod:

I think that right now there has been so much tainting of how the synod is being seen. I don’t think the process has been tainted, I don’t think the synod itself has been tainted, but the lens through which it is being seen by many, many people has been tainted, and so I suspect that that will have some impact. It’s not going to be a long term impact because you can only paint something in false tones and have it remain understood incorrectly for so long, after a while the church wins out.  The great maxim—magna est veritas et semper prevalebit—the truth is great and it always wins out, even with all of this propaganda and all of this distortion.

Cardinal Wuerl is no radical. He is speaking for himself, of course, but he’s been around for a while. He has attended many synods—and held a primary leadership role in the 2012 synod. He knows of what he speaks. No doubt the cardinal is giving voice to the frustration of many other synod fathers. Is he hedging against a possible no-result? I don’t think so, not after Pope Francis’s remember-I’m-the-pope speech yesterday (which sounded a lot like the one he gave last year, just before he appointed a commission to study the question of the annulment process, which he eventually reformed). Cardinal Wuerl may have just reset the table for the synod’s most important work—which begins tomorrow. 

Is There an End Game in the Middle East?

The wars in Syria and Yemen along with the continuing battle in Iraq between the government and ISIS have no end in sight. Attention to Russian intervention in Syria tends to obscure the tumult everywhere else. Charles Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the George H.W. Bush administration, offers a broad survey of the region, its history since the Gulf War, and U.S. ME policy since 1991. Here are the concluding paragraphs of his talk to the U.S.-Arab Policymakers Conference on October 15.

As refugees overwhelm Europe and both Asad and Da’esh continue to hold their own against the forces arrayed against them, the world is moving toward the conclusion that any outcome in Syria – any outcome at all – that can stop the carnage is better than its continuation.  The ongoing disintegration of the Fertile Crescent fuels extremism; empowers Iran; drives Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria together; weakens the strategic position of the GCC; vexes Turkey; and leaves the United States on a strategic treadmill.  The region seems headed, after still more tragedy and bloodshed, toward an unwelcome inevitability – the eventual acknowledgment of Iran’s hegemony in Iraq and Syria and political influence in Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen.  That is not where Americans and our Gulf Arab friends imagined we would end up twenty-five years after liberating Kuwait from Iraqi aggression.  But it is where protracted strategic incoherence has brought us.  We can no longer avoid considering whether an opening to Iran is not the key to peace and stability in the Middle East.

Whatever our answer to that question, the seventy-year-old partnership between Americans and Gulf Arabs has never faced more or greater challenges than at present.  We will not surmount these challenges if we do not both learn from our mistakes and work together to cope with the unpalatable realities they have created.  Doing so will require intensified dialogue between us, imagination, and openness to novel strategic partnerships and alignments.  There are new realities in the Middle East.  It does no good to deny or rail against them.  We must now adjust to them and strive to turn them to our advantage.

Previous efforts to discuss the ME here at dotCommonweal have not been very productive or, at points, even rational. I will open comments on Monday evening hoping that those interested will actually read Freeman's talk, "America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East,"  and speak to the points he makes and the issues he raises. And, of course, it can be read without any need to make comments.  

10/19: Comments open. No bullies, no trolls, no hysterics. You will be deleted.

Synod Sounds

ROME—The Holy See Press Office has taken to holding two-part press conferences, which is great if you want to hear more voices explaining what’s happening inside the synod hall, but not so great if you want lots of time for Q & A. Yesterday was one such presser. First we had reports on the synod fathers’ various interventions, and then we heard a couple of “fraternal delegates” to the synod—that is, representatives of non-Catholic religious communities.

So, what’s happening inside the aula? Discussions are becoming “more emotional,” according to one Vatican spokesperson. There’s been a slight shift from earlier interventions. The synod fathers are hearing about a very wide range of issues, including Humanae vitae, violence between Christians and Catholics (was this a reference to Ukraine? Unclear), the suffering of childless couples, adoption, intrafamily violence, families displaced by migration, care of the elderly, who often suffer isolation and a feeling of uselessness that leads to suicide, families torn by sexual abuse, “the martyrdom of silence in many families where incest has taken place.” The synod fathers also heard interventions about sexual education. One urged the church to resist the dominant, “disastrous” secular model of sex-ed. It should present its teachings as a pathway of love, not sin.

Some synod fathers spoke at length about Pope Francis’s reform of the annulment process (it’s speedier now, and less expensive). Others shared personal experiences of ministering to couples, recounting the experience of being formed by the husbands and wives they had set out to form. It’s easy for bishops to be drawn into the sense of being in control, one synod father said in the aula, as though they are the only ones to impart knowledge. But, he continued, ministry with couples always involves mutual enrichment.

At the heart of the synod, according to one participant, is human sexuality. He acknowledged that most bishops don’t know how to talk about it because they’re celibate. This is why married couples are essential to the discussion. And indeed, the synod fathers heard from some—Sharron Cole, a former board member of a natural family planning organization, even pressed them to reconsider Humanae vitae.

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Two New Books on Catholic Social Teaching

Just to a quick note to mention two interesting new books on Catholic social teaching on the shelves. The first is by Daniel Schwindt, and is titled Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis - the subtitle is “Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’.” I believe Daniel’s is the first attempt to incorporate Pope Francis’s vital contribution into a general treatise on the social doctrine—the publication date was June 19, a day after the encyclical was published! (Full disclosure: Daniel edited a book earlier this year called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis; an Anthology of Visions for the Future, and I contribute a chapter.)

The second book to cross my desk is the latest by Angus Sibley, entitled Catholic Economics: Alternatives to the Jungle. It was published too late to include insights from Laudato Si’, but Sibley is always worth reading. I especially enjoyed his last book: The Poisoned Spring of Economic Libertarianism.

Bravo to both authors, and let’s hope we are entering a new springtime for authentic Catholic social teaching!

Why the Synod Will Fail

Tom Reese gives five reasons.  What do you think?  What should one do?

Synod Snapshots

ROME—The bells of St. Peter’s tell me that it’s 8 a.m. The traffic on the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri, the six-lane thoroughfare that bends along the Vatican’s southern wall where it meets Paul VI Audience Hall—where synod meets—tells me that it’s rush hour. The calendar tells me that nearly two weeks of this General Synod on the Family are in the books. All anybody wants to tell me is that they have no idea whether, when the whole shindig wraps next Sunday, the bishops will have anything to show for it.

We the media honestly have no idea. We learn what we learn from interviews with synod fathers, from three-minute speeches some release to the public, from near-daily Holy See press briefings, which sometimes feature a bishop or two, and satellite press conferences that may or may not actually be press conferences.

I’m thinking of the one called by Voice of the Family, a pop-up activist supergroup intent on holding the line on any and all church doctrine and discipline regarding the family. Somehow they got press credentials for last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family (as did several other activists); this year, it seems, not so much. Yesterday morning VOF managed to fill an upper room at the Hotel Columbus, just off St. Peter’s Square, with a bunch of journalists hoping to catch some news from the headliner: Cardinal Raymond Burke. The cardinal spent much of the 2014 synod, and the year between that meeting and this one, resisting any change in church practice. So, as expected, when reporters had finished sitting through the undercard—which presented so close a reading of the synod’s working document as to determine that, in the words of one speaker, one of its paragraphs constituted a “direct attack on parental rights” that is “opposed to Catholic teaching”—and the main event, which was generally much calmer, they wanted to ask the cardinal some questions.

But the organizers wouldn’t have it.

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Scoring Last Night's Democratic Debate

If you weren’t a convinced Hillary Clinton supporter before last night's Democratic debate, her performance shouldn't have made you one.

Perhaps you only caught the last few minutes of it, when Clinton noted that the biggest enemy she made in her public life has been – wait for it – Republicans. (Others gave that honor to the coal industry or the NRA.) Or maybe you noticed, in her closing statement, that Clinton actually intoned the substance-free lines, "If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead." This after moderator Anderson Cooper asked her if she was ready to take a position on legalizing marijuana (an issue being considered in Nevada, where the debate was held) and she confessed – honestly at least – that she wasn't. Suddenly, it seemed, Clinton had discovered the virtues of federalism! And for those of you who embrace the national security state, Clinton's standing by her Patriot Act vote should be reassuring.

Is it fair to mention these especially unimpressive answers? Not entirely – Clinton did her homework, and was better on the stage than I remembered. I find Hillary Derangement Syndrome puzzling, and don't agree with her more vociferous critics. I understand her political virtues, which are not unsubstantial. But I couldn't really compile a similar list of evasions and poll-tested pablum for the other Democratic candidates. If the word triangulation makes you queasy, all those reminders from Clinton about how the Republicans were so much worse probably weren't reassuring. And I can’t really fathom an informed viewer believing Clinton when she asserted, “I went to Wall Street in December 2007, before the big crash that we had, and I basically said 'cut it out!’” I mean, has a Clinton ever spoken truth to money?

Putting aside the above criticisms, though, Clinton avoided major mistakes.

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Adults Meet and Debate—like Adults

I was pleasantly surprised at how well all the Dems came off last night at their first debate.

I was also surprised to read this headline in the NYTimes print edition: Hillary Clinton Turns up Heat on Bernie Sanders in a sharp debate.

But then, in this morning's e-summary from the Times there was this: "A Nuanced Stage Fight with Several Palpable Hits."

Perhaps they are not totally contradictory (for headlines), but I thought it was an intelligent, lively debate; even Anderson Cooper did a good job. You know, the kind of political debate that adults should have. I did eliminate two candidates that I have looked at; three still in the running as far as I'm concerned. And you? Who didn't watch the baseball game!

Apologies (Almost) All Around

ROME—A couple of quick developments before the daily press briefing, where reports from the synod's small-group discussions will be distributed.

First, before Pope Francis began his Wednesday catechesis, he offered a mysterious apology: “In the name of the church, I ask forgiveness for the scandals that recently have occurred in Rome and at the Vatican.” Then he delivered an address on the “scandal” of breaking the promise to love our children. “Jesus taught us to become like little children; in protecting our children, and protecting the family, may we keep the great promise which God has given to us in them, an through them, to our human family,” Francis said.

So what was Francis apologizing for? Take your pick: The sexual-abuse scandal (as he did in Philadelphia)? The leak of a letter criticizing the synod process signed by who-knows-how-many cardinals, which Cardinal Müller* recently compared to the Vatileaks scandal (more on that in a moment)? The Polish priest who announced he was in a relationship with another man—and that there are many more like him—on the eve of the synod? The Polish priest who had been spokesman for World Youth Day until it came to light that he had fathered a child? The absurdly ostentatious funeral for an alleged mafia boss? The financial scandals of the Vatican Bank? It could be any of these, or others (see John Thavis’s blog), or all. But the fact that Francis offered so general a mea culpa could indicate his frustration with the drip-drip of stories that make it look like little has changed since Benedict’s Vatican fell under the shadow of scandal.

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Process & Reality

Updates below.

ROME—In one of my favorite scenes from the Mel Brooks classic, History of the World: Part I (there was no second part), Moses descends from Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s laws, carrying not two but three stone tablets. “I have these fifteen”—he announces, just as one tablet crashes to the ground—“oy…ten commandments!” That came to mind as the day’s major synod news—that thirteen cardinals had signed a letter to the pope more or less calling the entire process into question—went from looking like a potential threat to Francis’s project to a strange episode that could leave the synod’s critics looking disorganized.

To those of you who haven’t been playing along at home, a recap: Early this morning, veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister—who lost his Holy See press credential for leaking a late, but not final draft of Laudato si’—reported that thirteen cardinals, several with senior positions in the Vatican, signed a letter criticizing key features of the synodal process. According to Magister, the list included Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Müller, and Cardinal Napier, among others. High-energy church observers such as Damian Thompson soon announced that the synod was on the verge of a breakdown: “The seniority of the signatories shows how close the church is to civil war.” But reports of the synod’s collapse appear to have been exaggerated. Because by late this afternoon, four of the thirteen alleged signatories had denied signing the letter: Cardinals Erdő, Piacenza Scola, and Vingt-Trois.

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Now Live, Our Fall Books Issue

Our Fall Books issue is live, and right now we’re featuring Marilynne Robinson’s “Awakening,” an essay excerpted from her soon-to-be-published collection of new writing, The Givenness of Things. Robinson writes she has come to realize that, after America’s First and Second Great Awakenings, there followed a third in the latter half of the twentieth century. “[What] I would call the third great awakening was led by the black church,” she writes, “and sooner or later had the support of all the major denominations. But it was not, and is not, understood as an essentially religious movement, though, as I have said the distinction between civic and religious is never clear, and was certainly not clear in this case.” She continues:

I was in high school and college when the civil-rights movement emerged. That was a very troubled time, and it was for me a deeply important education. I came from a strongly conservative background. I can truly say that I was schooled in generosity and optimism by the great movements of that period. I understood them as an essential America bursting the bonds that had distorted and constrained it. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Nothing has ever persuaded me to think less of these movements or otherwise about them. Therefore the fact that they seem sometimes to be at risk of following precursor movements into collapse and oblivion alarms and appalls me. The word “liberal” has been effectively stigmatized, as the word “abolitionist” was and is. As if generosity were culpable. As if there were some more reasonable response to slavery than to abolish it. As I write, the Voting Rights Act is being challenged before the Supreme Court. If American civil religion can be said to have a congregation, I was a member in good standing—until certain shifts became apparent in the meaning and effect of religion in America. These changes made me realize that I had indeed allowed my culture to instruct me in my religion—to my benefit, during a period that was singularly worthy of the confidence I placed in it. This is to say, it was worthy as other periods, quite reliably, are not.

You can read the whole thing here.

Also in our Fall Books issue: Jonathan Stevenson’s profile of the late Robert Stone, author of “big, political novels—novels of ideas whose protagonists seek to put those ideas into action, and usually get them wrong when they try.” Plus, Rand Richards Cooper reviews Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, Paul Moses discusses a new biography of political journalist (and Commonweal Catholic) Mary McGrory, and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly writes on security checks at events during the recent papal visit to the United States--and what the willingness to wait in long lines says about our acceptance of the authority of the security state. Of course, there’s more, which you can see in the full table of contents.

Whose Synod Is It, Anyway?

ROME—Previously, at the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops:

Last Monday, in remarks opening this three-week meeting on issues related to family life, Pope Francis urged the two hundred seventy synod fathers to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, to allow themselves to be "guided by God who always surprises, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent.”

Moments later, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, the synod’s general relator, delivered a seven-thousand-word address that, in part, urged the assembly not to be guided by arguments for readmitting some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. “The integration of the divorced and remarried in the life of the ecclesial community can take many forms, [but that] is different from admission to the Eucharist,” he said. He ruled out the “law of graduality,” used by some to discuss how the church might talk about couples in “irregular relationships.” Gradualism holds that moral decision-making develops over time. “We cannot always have 100 percent,” as Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German bishops conference put it during last year’s synod.

Erdő disagrees with that approach. “Between truth and falsehood, between good and bad, there is no graduality,” he said last Monday. Likewise, Erdő ruled out comparing traditional marriage with gay relationships: “There is no basis for comparing or making analogies, even remotely, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for matrimony and the family.” As for those who frame the challenges facing families as primarily questions of circumstance—war, poverty, environmental degradation—Erdő thinks something more important is working against traditional marriage: “anthropological change,” that is, moral relativism. The cardinal’s speech, described by some as conservatives’ “first strike” at this synod, seemed designed to shut down the more progressive proposals—which included not only a possible opening to some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but also the idea of finding more welcoming ways of speaking about gay people—that came up during last year’s synod. The mere discussion of such proposals occasioned a good deal of public pushback during the year between the two synods—from lay observers and bishops alike, including cardinals who are participating in the synod discussions. Something resembling a conspiracy theory emerged. Had the pope rigged the synod, as Edward Pentin suggested?

Pope Francis seemed to answer that question last Tuesday.

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Sex and the Synod

What is the Synod on the Family really about? At First Things, R.R. Reno suggests an answer: "the underlying issue is Catholicism’s relation to the sexual revolution." Reno ranges widely in the article, and while I don’t want to simplify his position, this passage stands out as a useful summary of it:

The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in ­practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It ­allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.

Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.

I think it’s possible to bracket, if for a moment, whatever particular disagreements I might have with Reno and ponder the above as a style of thinking. Consider the abstract quality of the term “sexual revolution”: It stands in for concrete issues like divorced and remarried Catholics’ ability to take Communion, or the roles women are permitted to have in the church. It removes the human element from all these situations. (Reno briefly mentions divorced Catholics and gay culture, and gestures at "the sexual free-for-all" unleashed by the sexual revolution, but largely avoids particulars, at least in this article.) The sexual revolution is invoked almost as a monolith we must either accept or reject; the effect is to obscure the particular realities Catholics are facing with a shorthand code for moral chaos, perversion, and hedonism. 

This especially matters because it is in the actual lives of those who faced longstanding discrimination that we see the sexual revoluton's complexity—and its necessity.

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