dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Science or conscience on climate change?

The announcement Friday that 2014 was Earth's warmest year on record prompted responses from some who accept the scientific evidence of climate change that this should finally convince those who don't. You'd think that with nine such records set and subsequently broken since 2000 alone, not much more convincing would be required, but there you have it. The complexity of climate science has become the fig leaf for those reluctant to acknowledge the role of greenhouse gases to hide behind, and thus to rationalize inaction and obstruction. So if the scientific case is too hard, then what about the moral case?

That's how Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on climate change will couch it, perhaps in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In New Scientist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography climatologist Veerabhadran Ramanathan says "science has taken this issue as far as it can" and now it's time for policy-makers to effect changes in behavior. The thinking is that the encyclical, which may be released as early as March, could with its call to moral action "shock" the nonbelievers into if not accepting the scientific facts, then at least supporting remedies for addressing the "global injustice" of subjecting many of the world's poorest population to disproportionate harm. These would include the 73 percent of white Evangelical Americans who doubt human-generated climate change. Or the 60 percent of white American Catholics who remain very or somewhat unconcerned about climate change. Such an appeal to conscience, the hopeful thinking also goes, might spur Catholic representatives, who account for thirty-three percent of Congress, to maybe, finally, take some meaningful, measurable steps as well. 

With a pope who can candidly answer a question about climate change by saying, "It is man who continuously slaps down nature,” maybe the optimistic anticipation is understandable: This could finally do it, is the hope of backers on action on climate change.  But can a moral case, as compelling as it is, be any more effective than what seems like incontrovertible scientific proof, and a growing body of economic evidence, about the harm of warming? Can it persuade those who seem more invested in not being persuaded?

Communion with Gornick, McDermott & Karr (and Eliot)

Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?

“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"

McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.

Read more

Papal presser in the sky.

On the flight to Manila today, Pope Francis gave another one of his signature free-wheeling press conferences in which he says a series of interesting things. He spoke about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, religious liberty, freedom of speech, ecumenism, his long-awaited encyclical on the environment, the next saint he'll make, and what he'd do to someone who spoke ill of his mom. Here are a few notable bits, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter and the Boston Globe/Crux:

Read more

Indian priest in Florida accused of obscenity involving a minor.

Last week in Palm Beach, Florida, a Francisican priest from India was arrested for allegedly showing child pornography to a minor. The cleric, Fr. Jose Palimattom, who admitted to police that after Mass one Sunday he had a fourteen-year-old boy delete pornographic images of children from the priest's phone. Palimattom also revealed that back in India his superiors reprimanded him for becoming involved with a minor--but that the incident was not reported to law enforcement. Palimattom's province denies knowing about any such relationship. The Diocese of Palm Beach was told by Palimattom's superior in India that he was a priest in good standing--and that background checks "revealed no prior misconduct," according to a diocesan statement.

On the morning of January 4, Palimattom sent a Facebook message to the boy asking for his assistance with his phone, according to the arrest report. After Mass, Palimattom and the minor walked out the front doors of the church, where the priest handed over his device and told the boy he was having trouble getting rid of some images. What the teenager saw shocked him: about forty thumbnail images of fully exposed preteen boys including the words "little boys" and "young boys 10-18." Yet the boy didn't let on that he was scandalized by the photographs. Later he informed the parish music director, followed by his parents, who immediately phoned the police. Later that night, the boy received a Facebook message from the priest: "Goodnight, sweet dreams." He was arrested the next day.

Read more

Killed for Kidding

In the current New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a thoughtful piece about last week's massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He provides some useful history, makes some important distinctions, and points out that, even in an era when the capacity of images to shock is supposed to have been enfeebled by "repetition and availability," a cartoon can still enrage. "Drawings are handmade, the living sign of an ornery human intention, rearing up against a piety." Like William T. Cavanaugh, Gopnik is uneasy with efforts to turn the victims into martyrs—but for a very different reason:

For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory.... A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn't just mock those men's politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances.

That's well put. But then, in the very next sentence, Gopnik takes momentary leave of his usual clarity and elegance to write, "It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine's special Christmas issue, titled 'The True Story of Baby Jesus,' whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child." Notably frontal birth? As opposed to what? Somebody needs to explain to Gopnik what Catholics believe about the virgin birth. He seems to have it confused with some weird version of the birth of Athena.

But his larger point is sound. If Wolinski, Cabu, Charb, and Tignous—four of the best known cartoonists in France—are going to be celebrated as national (or international) heroes, they should be celebrated for who they really were and what they really did. As Gopnik writes,

The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what the cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.

Even that last phrase sounds too pious to my ears. How about the fun of ignobility. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had fun making fun. They spent their whole careers trying to be outrageous, trying to offend, and there is nothing particularly heroic about that. But in the end, after the threats of violence began to arrive, they could continue to be outrageous only by being courageous too—by refusing to let terrorists decide what they were allowed to draw and print. Like most Catholics and most Americans (few of whom had ever heard of the magazine before last week), I can't honestly say, "Je suis Charlie." And in a way, that's beside the point. Solidarity is not always a function of identity. Enough to be able to say, along with many who've never read it and many others whose ox it regularly gores, "Vive Charlie Hebdo!"

 

UPDATE: Below is the cover of this week's edition of Charlie Hebdo.

Writing Atrocity

In Thirty Girls, the novelist Susan Minot has set herself several tasks, all of them difficult. First, she wants to imagine the seemingly unimaginable: what it must feel like for a young girl to be abducted and effectively enslaved in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Second, she wants to lay bare the problems that confront the writer—and all of us—when faced with such atrocities. And third, she wants to dramatize both barbarism and our responses to it through the lens of a love story—the kind of fevered, haunting affair that readers of Minot’s previous novel, Rapture, will be familiar with.

Read more

New issue, new E. J. Dionne Jr.

Just posted to the website: Our January 23 issue. Among the highlights:

  • Gilbert Meilaender’s “The Future of Baby-Making,” on how reproductive technologies are separating sex from procreation. But “[w]ould this be good for children?” he wonders. “And would it be good for sex?” Read it all here (subscribers).
  • Paul Lauritzen’s “ ‘Lawful but Awful,’” in which he discusses the moral perils of drone warfare, and the Obama administration’s justification of it in the context of “reevaluation of the moral frameworks used for assessing the use of force.” Read the whole thing here.
  • Plus, Celia Wren reviews Grantchester, a PBS/Masterpiece mystery with a vicar at its center; Rand Richards Cooper reviews The Babadook, “a horror film that abjures cheap thrills and builds its terrors securely atop a base of all-too-familiar human pain;” and William H. Pritchard writes on the novels of Ian McEwan, including his latest, The Children Act. See the full table of contents for the January 23 issue here.

Also now featured on the website is E. J. Dionne Jr.’s “The Community College Cause,” in which he discusses President Obama’s recently announced plan to pay tuitions for America’s community college students; read the whole thing here.

Marty on Charlie

Obviously the biggest recent story of "religion, politics & culture" -- Commonweal's "specialty" -- occurred in Paris in the last week.  There have been a number of intelligent comments and more are needed. Martin Marty lists a number of "obviously's" in his regular online "Sightings" column as well as a number of links to other views.  My only quibble is with Marty's use of the word "simply" in describing the murderers as "simply evil."  The murders were simply evil, but murderers are almost never simply anything.  To his links I would add Ross Douthat's online comment on January 7. 

Martin Marty's Sightings       Ross Douthat's blog comment

Great News Day!...

...for schadenfreud.

NYTimes offers a check-list for most of what went wrong between Mayor de Blasio and the police. Revealing.... And it quotes police sympathetic to the mayor, though not his less than "A" performance, really almost "D" minus!

The Jewish Daily Forward offers a full analysis of PM Netanyahu's off and then on again decision to march in Paris on Sunday. Let's just say President Hollande was not welcoming. And let's note Netanyahu is big on trying to convince French Jews to move to Israel. The bottom line: President Abbas, who wasn't going, went and got in the front line, a book-end to Netanyahu at the other end (at least in the front page photos). There is a nice side-bar:  "Je Suis Bibi."

And, of course, the Republicans are attacking Obama for not going, but then they would have criticized him for going, if he had!

Robert Stone, 1937-2015

Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, among other novels, died on Saturday at the age of 77. William Giradli has written that "a lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all," and Stone, who spent his early childhood in a Catholic orphanage, proved the truth of this claim. His work was religiously inflected, politically serious, and stylistically adventurous. He will be missed.

Commonweal has featured writing on Stone on various occasions. Here are some highlights: Paul Lakeland on his last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, published in 2013; R. Clifton Spargo on Stone's memoir of the 1960s; and Dominic Preziosi on Stone, violence, and political conflict by way of Oakley Hall's Warlock.

Route 66 (and a Former Self) Revisited

Recovering TV addicts have no business pining after those shows that got them hooked in the first place.

Yet for more years than I care to admit, I would periodically burden my long-suffering wife with my memories of one series in particular: Route 66, which debuted in 1960. She’d listen patiently and nod as I waxed rhapsodic about the “breakthrough” program. Then one day recently, out of an abundance of love and understanding (and perhaps to test the efficacy of aversion therapy), she presented me with the complete DVD set of the show’s first two seasons.

Created by Academy Award winner, Stirling Silliphant, and producer Herbert B. Leonard, the show followed the lives of Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buzz Murdoch (George Maharis) as they traveled the country in a Corvette convertible in search of themselves and a rapidly evolving social and political landscape.

Buzz and Tod were a study in contrasts and had interesting back-stories. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Buzz worked for a Hudson River barge business owned by Tod’s father. Tod was Yale student who worked summers on the barges. When his father died after Tod’s junior year, leaving his son a pile of unpaid debts and the Corvette, Tod was forced to leave school. Their worlds upended by the failure of the business, the book-smart Tod and the street-smart Buzz decided to hit the road and “catch a star,” in Buzz’s words.

What they discovered about the country they traveled around and the lives of those they encountered along the way made for compelling watching.

The series was groundbreaking in so many ways. The hour-long episodes were filmed almost entirely on location throughout the U.S. The episodes tackled difficult issues head-on: racism, xenophobia, drug addiction, mental illness, nuclear annihilation, neo-Nazism. Heady stuff for a young teenager with intellectual pretentions (and, alas, pop-culture sensibilities).

The scripts, a great many of them written by Silliphant, were literate and populated by memorable characters who were brought to life by an interesting mix of actors. Some were at the end of successful careers: Ethel Waters (who was nominated for an Emmy for her role, the first African-American woman so honored), Lew Ayers, Akim Tamiroff, Everett Stone, Regis Toomey, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Some were virtual unknowns who would go on to stardom: Robert Redford (who had auditioned for the Tod Stiles role), Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, James Caan, Ed Asner, Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Keir Dullea. And others were in the prime of their careers: Lee Marvin, Susan Pleshette, Jack Warden, Anne Francis, Peter Graves, Tuesday Weld, Nehemiah Persoff, Nina Foch.

So, there I was, boxes in hand, a bit giddy at the prospect of binging on all 64 episodes. After tearing off the shrink-wrap, I cued up Disc 1 and invited my wife to sit with me to watch the first episode. She dutifully complied, but at the conclusion of the show (about a small backwater town in Mississippi with a dark secret) she politely excused herself. I expected as much given the amount of squirming she did during the show's last half-hour.

Although I sat still for the entire 51-minute running time (the commercials were excised), I wasn’t enthralled. In fact, by the time Nelson Riddle's hypnotic score began to play over the closing credits, I felt somewhat hollow. And that feeling, along with an embarrassed self-consciousness, continued through the remaining 63 episodes. The story lines were as topical and hard-hitting as I had remembered, but too many of the treatments now seemed ham-fisted and didactic. The guest stars all turned in credible performances, but many of their characters, along with those of the two leads, exuded an earnestness that my former self thought noble, but my present self found naive.

Truth be told, it was I who was really naive. Going in I knew full well what to expect of '60s-era drama, even the "breakthrough" ones. The U.S. was transitioning from the post-war era to the New Frontier. Issues that incubated during the Eisenhower years emerged fully formed in the early '60s, affecting all levels of society. Bravo Stirling Silliphant for taking on those issues in the spirit of the times. And shame on me for not using that historical lens when evaluating the show’s scripts and performances and production values and the tastes and conceits of a certain Catholic school ninth grader.

For those considering a trip through the TV or cinematic past to re-create a fondly remembered time or experience, be forewarned: nostalgia ain't what it used to be and a former self deserves loads of empathy. And don’t forget the popcorn.

Too Many Interviews

Does anyone remember the phenomenon of “Our Lady of Bayside”? Beginning in 1975, there was a series of supposed apparitions of the Blessed Mother (deemed inauthentic by church authorities) in Bayside, Queens. The visionary there, a Queens housewife, claimed she received some 290 messages from Mary, and many other saints as well. The devotees of these apparitions gathered in the former (1964) World’s Fair grounds, at the site that once was the Vatican pavilion. The alleged messages from Mary were many. Many! And they just kept coming. They included tirades against removing altar rails and warnings against playing guitars in church, and numerous other things.

I’ll never forget the story of a theology professor who, when asked about the plausibility of these so-called revelations, dryly observed: “Our Lady seems a bit… talkative.”

Alas, being “a bit… talkative” is not limited to apparitions. Remember how Pope Benedict was going to be “hidden from the world” after his retirement? This fall the emeritus pope sent a talk to the Urbaniana (Oct 21), a message to Summorum Pontificum pilgrims (Oct 25), a message to the Anglican Ordinariate (Oct 30), and met with leaders of Caritas Veritate International (Nov 6), all of which were reported in the press. On Nov. 17 he again made headlines by changing his 1972 views on admitting the divorced and remarried to communion, with his new views now being published in his collected works. He then talked with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Dec 7) saying it’s ridiculous to think he was trying to influence the Synod on the family. “I try to be as quiet as I can,” he said.

And then there’s his secretary and master of the papal household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein. When his picture appeared on the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, in January 2013, he was quoted virtuously suggesting that his role should be like glass: “the less you see of the glass, the better it is.” But that didn’t stop him from giving interviews. He was interviewed on Rome Reports, Reuters, Vatican Radio, the Washington Post, and Gloria.tv. Next thing you know, he gave an interview on German television in March 2014 saying Pope Francis is “not everyone’s darling,” and darkly predicting that his popularity won’t last.

But the all-time chatterbox award has to go to Cardinal Raymond Burke, now former head of the Apostolic Signatura.

Read more

The Judicious Mr. Gerson

There are commentators whose name for me is always an imperative to read their reflections. Though I may finally disagree with their view, I always find their writing illuminating and an incentive to explore and question my own position. David Remnick of the New Yorker is one such, as is Peter Steinfels (whom some of you may know); a third is Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.

Here is the conclusion of the column Gerson published today:

Our ideal of democracy is not an endless cable television shouting match. It is a free society in which citizens have a decent regard for the rights and views of others. This requires a measure of self-restraint, something we teach to our children as tolerance and manners. And such self-restraint is not self-censorship; it is respect. A free country should unapologetically defend the right to jeer and taunt. This does not require everyone in a free country to find jeering and taunting admirable.

 

These distinctions are relevant to the broader fight against Islamism. It is important, first, to separate this violent political ideology from the faith of Islam, which an overwhelming majority of adherents find to be a source of comfort and compassion. It is also important to clarify the contending alternatives in a great struggle. It is not Islamism against the Christian West. And it is not Islamism against the secular West. The United States is animated by a vision of democratic pluralism that is fully compatible with strong religious belief, fully committed to free expression — and fully prepared to defend its ideals against fanatics.

Cardinal Burke's vision of a manly church, and what it leaves out

When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."

Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:

I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.

It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.

In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.

Read more

A Reality Check on NYC--UPDATE

A lot of ignorant analysis has been written about New York City's mayor, police, and race relations. The New York Times editorial page keeps huffing and puffing at everyone. The Mayor has eulogized the dead while police officers turn their backs. Traffic tickets are down, arrests are down, and alternate-side of the street parking regulations have gone by the boards. The current cold spell ("Arctic clipper" says the weather page) seems to be keeping protestors home, or maybe it's the journalists staying home and not covering them.

Inevitably someone begins to allign the pieces. George Packer at the New Yorker-on-line makes a good beginning. 1. Clearly stating what all the major players have done wrong. 2. Pointing to the effects on the police and the citizenry of class-based housing in New York City. 3. Noting how many newcomers to the city have no idea what the NYC paradise of today once was. 4. How the poor, the marginal, the hanging on by their fingertips depend more than anyone on good policing. 5. Why most New Yorkers don't want to know what the police do.

Sample of point 5: "Few people really want to know what it takes to keep them safe. Policing is the kind of work—like sewage treatment, care of the elderly, legislating, embalming, and combat—that most of us prefer not to think about. It’s both ugly and essential, so essential that it creates a feeling of shame and resentment—and to avoid being disturbed by the thought we push it out of our minds, into the shadows, where the cops who protect us go about the dirty work of using the threat of violence to enforce the law. That’s where we want them to stay, so that we don’t have to think too much about what goes on in our defense, how the job of patrolling streets, questioning suspects, and making arrests rubs everyone raw. It breeds fear and hatred on both sides of the line."  New Yorker.

UPDATE: A retired police lieutenant weighs in on the NYTimes op ed page.

Pope Francis and Mother Teresa

On the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God Pope Francis gave a fine homily, in which he reprised one of Pope Benedict's key themes. Francis said:

Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst.

This morning, reading through the January issue of the monthly meditation aid, Magnificat, I came across this letter of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to her Sisters:

I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus – one to one – you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel – but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus – not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? Ask for the grace; he is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear him saying, "I thirst," in the hearts of the poor.

Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person – not just the idea. (Varanasi Letter: March 25, 1993)

Cuomo analysis, Cuomo anecdote

The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].

Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.

I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”

I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.

Read more

Mario the pre-conciliar Catholic

At Mass this morning, we remembered Mario Cuomo in our prayers.  May he rest in peace.  He was a brilliant, thoughtful, gifted politician, and a good man.  He could powerfully articulate ideals and also mediate compromises, no small abilities and all too seldom found together.  He also maintained an extensive, friendly, always civil although not always harmonious relationship with Commonweal.  No wonder he is being remembered as the very model of a liberal Catholic. About that, however, I have my doubts.   

Of course, we won’t know the truth about this complex individual until his private papers can be plumbed by biographers, and even then I wonder if there will be one sufficiently versed in Catholic matters to get beyond the idea that anyone who disagrees with bishops about abortion is ipso facto a liberal Catholic. Especially if he or she uses words like ipso facto.    

Liberal Catholic is a stance built in good part on some important distinctions about how religiously grounded moral beliefs relate to law and the state.  Here Cuomo doubtlessly qualified.  He made important statements about those subjects.  But it was not always easy to reconcile his statements with his actions as a political leader.  The difficulty became most striking in the contrast between his courageous defiance of public opinion and political expedience in the case of capital punishment and his equivocating conformity in the case of abortion.  The contrast led some people to consider his views hypocritical, others to consider them just incoherent.  I think that they made a lot more sense if one recognized that, for all his quoting of Teilhard de Chardin, Mario remained an old-fashioned pre-Vatican II Catholic, a variant of what Jay Dolan, writing of Catholic immigrants and their offspring, termed “devotional Catholicism.”  When it comes to discerning moral teaching in this view of the church, there is a sharp division of labor.  The hierarchy teaches; the laity apply—with prudence.  In this view, when confronted with a complicated moral problem, one does not think with the church, one agrees with the church.  It took me awhile to learn this lesson about Cuomo. 

Read more

With Friends Like These....

Jewish settlers attacked American consular officials Friday during a visit the officials made to the West Bank as part of an investigation into claims of damage to Palestinian agricultural property, Israeli police and Palestinian witnesses say....Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that a small number of settlers threw rocks at officials who had come to an area near the Jewish settlement outpost of Adi Ad in two consular vehicles to look into Palestinian claims that settlers uprooted scores of Palestinian olive trees the day before."

More here: Christian Science Monitor.

Gosh. Wonder if the FBI, CIA, State Department are investigating. Sanctions? Drone surveillance?

 

"In the Bleak Mid-winter"

With wishes for Epiphany blessings: