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The Theological Heart of Laudato Si'

The overwhelming immediate importance of Laudato Si’ is to call both church and world to respond to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home” (13). As Tony Annett has already ably pointed out, Francis is not mincing words here, even if he is careful. Above all, the encyclical suggests we are home-wreckers, yet we also have a chance for a deeper conversion from our “internal deserts,” (217; one of the many quotes from Benedict XVI) to a more joyful and more challenging way of life: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (205). Such a response, the pope makes clear in chapters 1 & 5, requires international cooperation because of the nature of the problems. That Francis chose to highlight the atmosphere, water, and the diversity of species is telling – these are all problems where global cooperation is absolutely necessary. Your car, lawn, and hardwood flooring may very well be implicated, but “nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today” (219).

Chapters 1 & 5 contain a lot of the material that will grab attention in the larger media. But the heart of the encyclical theologically and spiritually is chapters 2-4. It is important to highlight that this document is firmly and clearly theological. If we contemplate the broad structure of these chapters, we can see an elegant scheme of creation, fall, and redemption. This fundamental pattern of the Christian narrative is so easy to forget – to sing “Canticle of the Sun” while forgetting the cross, or to offer the cross as an escape hatch from creation, rather than a tree of life that makes way for the Spirit’s renewal of creation. To read the encyclical as a whole – not always easy given its length and its incredible detail! – is to be reminded of this basic pattern: God’s gift, our human sinfulness, and the everlasting covenant sealed by the Spirit, promising a vision of renewal to the ends of the earth.

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Ten Quick Takeaways from Laudato Si'

1.       The encyclical strongly affirms the climate science and the gravity of the environmental challenge. The pope states clearly that the recent global warming is due to greenhouse gas emissions, caused mainly by human activity. He delves into the science, and even discusses risk factors like ocean acidification, the loss of tropical forests, and the release of methane from melting ice sheets. He calls climate change one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Overall, the discussion of the environmental threats is deep and wide-ranging, with discussions of water, ecosystems, and biodiversity. In places, the diagnosis is characteristically blunt: “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.

2.       In the face of this crisis, the pope lambasts those who fail to act. Noting the failure to find solutions to the environmental crisis, Pope Francis pins the blame on obstruction by vested interests, general indifference, and blind confidence in technical solutions. He is particularly critical of people who possess more resources or more political and economic power, who seem concerned with “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. He notes that special interests trump the common good and manipulate information so that their own plans will not be affected. He criticizes a habit of evasiveness designed to feed “self-destructive vices”.

3.       The encyclical calls for a dramatic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, and for rich countries to help poorer countries on this path. It notes that fossil fuels need to be “progressively and quickly replaced” with renewables. This requires action at the global, national, and local levels. Given the complete failure of governments to reach agreement almost a quarter century after the Rio Earth summit in 1992, the pope notes that “we believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions”. Noting that the poor pay the price for climate change—and indeed, that an “ecological debt” exists between north and south—Pope Francis also calls for the richer countries, who have enjoyed prosperity at the cost of polluting the planet, to help the poorer countries overcome climate change and move to lower-carbon energy systems.

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Laudato Si' Press Conference: Twitter Roundup

This morning Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' was released and presented by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace.” Alongside Turkson were other presenters: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; Professor John Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Institute for Climate Impact in Potsdam; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher from Rome. The following is some selected Twitter coverage of the event as it happened.

The conference begins:

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Massimo Faggioli on 'Laudato si''

Just posted to the homepage, Massimo Faggioli's reading of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato si'.

In some ways, Laudato si’ picks up where Evangelii gaudium left off. Francis decries the “culture of waste,” abuses of technology, and profit-mad globalization. As expected, he affirms the scientific consensus on global warming. In order to better listen to what the earth is telling us, Francis writes, the church must advocate for the poor—the first to suffer the effects of climate change. The pope rejects “demographic solutions” (like Paul VI in Humanae vitae, but Francis does not quote that text here), such as population control. He criticizes wealthy nations that leverage the needs of poorer ones for political control. Particularly strong is the pope’s analysis of the relations between politics, the global economy, and information, which is manipulated by business interests. Francis laments that in the debate on the environment, the role of politics is largely absent.

The Gospel calls the church to speak out against whatever threatens the dignity of every human being, including inequality. In this sense, the ecology of Francis is fully prolife: respect for people and respect for other creatures are closely connected. The strongest section of Laudato Si’ is its critique of technocracy (a skepticism shared by Benedict XVI). The “technocratic paradigm” is reflected in our failure to grasp the fact that many of the earth’s resources are finite. For Francis, technology is never neutral—it can be used to ill effect. The market itself will not correct this on its own. Therefore the church itself should offer a unifying voice in order to help us break free from the technocratic paradigm. To that end, Francis urges us to rethink our consumerist excesses: a good relationship with creation presupposes a good relationship with the Creator.

Ecology, according to Francis, always includes care for the poor, for the marginalized, and for nature. It also means protecting culture: the word “inculturation” does not appear in the text, but for Laudato si’ true ecology must be inculturated, not imported with a colonialist mindset. Authentic “human ecology” does not ignore sexual differences: accepting masculinity and femininity is a way of respecting creation, the pope writes, rather than imposing our will on it. In this Catholic presentation of ecology, society has a role in defending the common good, as do nations and governments.

Read the rest right here.

Now on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First, in his weekly letter from Rome, Robert Mickens names Cardinal Pell "the most prominent of the church’s self-described climate change skeptics," and wonders if he--or any Catholic--can "simply ignore the new encyclical or the parts they don’t like":

Many have done so before, not least concerning Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Of course, the cardinal and many others in the hierarchy call such people 'dissenters.'

Plus, a look at which bishops elected by their national episcopal conferences will attend October's Synod on the Family, and a look into the truth behind Francis's (not yet) "tribunal" to try bishops who abuse their office. Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here.

Next, Benjamin F. Carlson shows that China's growing urbanization means rural villages are under threat of extinction, and that may mean the end of "undergound" Roman Catholicism as well:

The countryside is not only the bedrock of Chinese traditions, but also the bedrock of Chinese Catholicism. The majority of China’s one hundred and thirteen dioceses were founded around small, provincial cities.... it is not surprising that China under Xi Jinping has shown little interest in improving ties with the Vatican.

Read all of "New Tests for 'Old' China's Catholics" here.

Also, in advance of the encyclical, we've just posted a new Reading List featuring Commonweal articles, editorials, and essays on the environment and climate change.

Whose Legacy?

The word "legacy" appears frequently in stories about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). And almost without exception it refers to President Obama's legacy.

The defeat last week in the House of a piece of the agreement has been taken as a major defeat for the president, and what's more, at the hands of his fellow Democrats. No doubt, the whole thing will circle around again, and those now on record against the agreement can then vote, yes.

But why would it be singled out as Obama's legacy. We could say that the legacy of NAFTA lives on in the lives of those who lost or never found good jobs over the last two decades, and not in the life of Bill Clinton who signed it. Presumably the major legacy of TPP will be more disruption in job formation, both here and in the "trans-Pacific." Labor and environmental regulations are weak and the ability of a few to make lots of money is strong. Why would any president want that for his legacy?

Joseph A. Komonchak Receives the John Courtney Murray Award

Joseph A. Komonchak has received the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America, the organization’s highest honor. Regular readers of Commonweal are no doubt familiar with Joe’s work: He is not only a longtime friend and contributor, but also (of course) a leading scholar on Vatican II, the editor of a five-volume history of the council, and the author of more than one hundred and fifty articles. The award was presented June 13 at the CTSA convention in Milwaukee. Please join us in congratulating Joe on winning such well-deserved recognition from his fellow theologians.

Was the encylical leak a violation of journalistic ethics?

Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, widely seen as skeptical of the Francis papacy, has published an Italian draft of the pope's encyclical on the environment, which is scheduled to be released Thursday morning. One Vatican official called the leak "a heinous act." As word of the leak spread, my Twitter feed blew up with complaints that Magister had violated journalistic ethics by writing about an "embargoed" document. And Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, seemed to agree. Emphasizing that Magister's copy is not the final draft, Lombardi suggested that L'Espresso's decision to run with it was unprofessional. "The rules of the embargo remain in place," Lombardi said in a statement.

Magister got his copy from an unofficial source (obviously curial) who imposed no restrictions on its use. An embargo obtains when a source gives a journalist (or journalists) information with the understanding that it cannot be reported until a certain time. The Vatican, for example, is allowing accredited journalists to read the encyclical two hours before it is officially released. The embargo doesn't begin until Thursday morning, when reporters receive their advance copies. If one of them publishes on that text before at 11 a.m. local time, then the embargo will have been broken.

So Lombardi is mistaken. Magister didn't commit any journalistic sin. He got a legitimate scoop, decided making the Holy See Press Office crazy was a price worth paying, and wrote it up. What's unfortunate about the leak is that it will make the Holy See more wary of providing advance warning of the publishing dates of papal documents.

Archbishop Nienstedt resigns. (UPDATED)

This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.

Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."

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How to Worry about Selfie Sticks

There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning the language pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it makes one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see. 

Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.

Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”

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11th day in Asia: Greetings from Pune, India

I arrived in Asia on June 3rd for Lucas Chan’s memorial and burial.   I left Hong Kong on the 10th, saying farewell to that city, but not to my friend who was born and raised there. 

I arrived in Pune (the Indian spelling of what the English called Poona until Indian Independence in 1947) by the invitation of one other of my doctoral students, John Karuvelil, S.J.

Pune is the nation’s center of higher education, commonly referred to as, the “Oxford of the East.”  

In 1942 the Jesuits opened its residence, De Nobili College (DNC), for the formation of Jesuit scholastics.  By 1955, the Pontifical Athenaeum for diocesan seminarians came to the campus where the DNC was, and became the school for all students living on the campus.  By 1972 the Athenaeum was renamed Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth.

Today over 850 students are doing graduate degree programs in theology and philosophy at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth. Among its students, over 70 are women, and that group is growing.  Moreover,160 Jesuit students, living with 30 other Jesuit faculty and administrators under one roof, make De Nobili College the largest Jesuit community in the world.

I live here with my host John Karuvelil, who is, I think, a perfect representative of what moral theologians in India are doing today.

He finished his dissertation in 2010, on how the Catholic social justice tradition could positively influence the enormous Indian health care industry.  Karuvelil emphasized how the tradition and its teachings on the common good, option for the poor, subsidiarity, equity, participation, and solidarity, could guide the enormously developing genetics industry in India a segment of its ever-growing pharmaceutical industry.

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Bishop Sanchez Sorondo responds to criticism

I recently posted a response by Margaret Archer—president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—to an attack essay by Stefano Gennarini in First Things. This essay accused the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, of openly defying the position of the Holy See on “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights.”

The good bishop has now published his own response, and it is detailed, thoughtful, and gracious. I invite you to read it without my editorial comment.

But I want to step back and think about this for a minute. We had an event at the Vatican that focused mainly on climate change and how it hurts the world’s poorest people. But instead of engaging on this vitally important point, agitators like Gennarini turn the debate back to abortion. And pretty soon, that’s all everyone is talking about. He has forced an upstanding Catholic bishop to go on record stating that he is in fact opposed to abortion!

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a tried-and-true tactic. But we shouldn’t play into their hands.  We need to put these people back on the defensive. The pro-life position can never be limited to abortion. It must encompass all forms of the “throwaway” culture that Pope Francis mentions so often, all ways that life and dignity are degraded and cheapened. It must encompass the issues that the Pontifical Academy is passionate about, including human trafficking and modern forms of slavery. And it certainly must encompass the need to reduce carbon emissions, given that our “business as usual” trajectory is going to prove catastrophic for human life and health, especially for the poor and the unborn.

So let the response to such provocation be: “I oppose abortion, but do you oppose decarbonization”? I would like to hear an answer to that question from Stefano Gennarini, George Weigel, Robbie George, Raymond Arroyo, Bill Donohue and all others who seek to downplay and dismiss these concerns.

I would argue that, from a moral perspective, opposing decarbonization is not that different from supporting legalized abortion—you might not be the acting moral agent, but you are still complicit in the structures of sin. Putting it another way, it might not be formal cooperation with evil, but it is certainly material.

And sin is the right word. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been saying this for a long time—degrading the earth, including by changing the climate, is a sin. Pope Francis has used similar words in the past. And given the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s representative at the launch of the encyclical next week, what’s the betting that this theme will feature prominently?

Nature Notes, June 12, 2015

June 12, 2015: Fireflies out and about. I thought this would be the earliest date ever, but I see May 30, 2011 wins the early bird award. Of course, I wasn't here in nature on May 30 this year so.... The fireflies are not yet as profuse as they were in 2014, but will certainly increase as we approach July 4, when they put on their great firework show.

In the meantime mountain laurel are bursting blossoms (looks like a wedding bower). Everything green is profuse: ferns, raspberry bushes, violets, (even the irises flowered this year), alium look great, lady's mantel, blood root, verbena, chives, oregano and who knows what else.

The Fordham Tick Index is at 8 (out of 10). I have been attacked by only one so far. It had not yet bitten, so I spared it (Will Francis have anything to say about unloved creatures like ticks, mosquitos, and chiggers. We'll see next week.).

I speculate that a very cold and long winter followed by a wet June has produced the abundant green world, though it seems that may have delayed planting on the farm at the bottom of the hill. Late corn!

2014 Report, June 27.     2012 Report, June 22.      2011 Report May 30.

To Skip a 'Mockingbird'

It can be trying these days for those not among the legions who hold Harper Lee in such high esteem. That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her acclaim, resurgent in anticipation of a newly discovered and soon-to-be-published work. It’s just that I have nothing to base an opinion on. I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird.

It feels good to confess that. I’ve been carrying the secret around for years, since not having been assigned to read it in high school, and then not reading it on my own during college. Of course, the longer things went, the harder it got – job, marriage, family, you know – each passing year making it less likely I’d start a book everyone else seemed to have long since finished, and in adolescence at that. If I’d picked it up in 1999 when it was named “Best Novel of the Century” by Library Journal, it would have looked as if I was just latching on to an annoying retro trend. And now? The Guardian refers to it as a children’s book, so, not likely. At best it would invite well-meaning but embarrassed (and embarrassing) concern; at worst, ridicule. I’ve already been down that road, accosted at my previous job by a co-worker who saw me with a copy of The Great Gatsby (a novel I’ve read many times over, I just want to point out). “What are you,” he asked incredulously, “in high school?

Also, I have not seen the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, though that seems the more venial of the sins.

I can’t really hide the truth anymore. It’s too hard when a friend makes thoughtful, earnest reference to Atticus Finch, or an old classmate expresses tender, unfading fondness for Boo Radley, or a neighbor brings their son/daughter Scout to a birthday party (“Guess who he/she’s named after! Go ahead! Guess!”). I know the names of the characters; I know their general relationships to one another. I know the main parts of the plot. But do I know the book? No. Because I have never read it.

Though if I didn’t know any better, there seem to be forces at work to get me to.

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Discussing the encyclical

"The whole human race faces a moment of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity."  Those words opened the Second Vatican Council’s evaluation of modern warfare.   They might well be applied to the question that Pope Francis is addressing in the forthcoming encyclical on climate change, the environment, and sustainable development. 

The U.S. bishops quoted those words at the beginning of “The Challenge of Peace,” their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace in an age of nuclear weapons.  Like that pastoral letter, the Pope’s new encyclical is sure to raise once again abiding questions about the relationship of religious authority to disputed matters of fact and public policy.  Once again thoughtful Catholics will have to respond to standard accusations that the Pope has no business speaking about global warming, just as the bishops were said to have no business speaking about nuclear strategy.  And once again Catholics sympathetic to the thrust of the document will have to resist the temptation simply to bash those less convinced with hierarchical authority and papal proof-texting. 

So it might be wise to look back to that earlier letter and consider what was one of the most careful treatments of those questions in any recent episcopal document. 

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Why Climate Change is Not a Prudential Judgment

A recent survey indicated that Americans divide into three groups on the issue of climate change: believers, sympathizers, and skeptics. About half of Americans are “believers,” saying that the climate is warming and that this warming is caused by human activity, and another quarter are “sympathizers” who are less sure about causes, but who agree the climate in warming. The final quarter are “skeptics,” who deny that there really is any warming.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

Francis’s encyclical has already brought charges from prominent Catholics that the Church should stay out of the science. It is important to recognize that the encyclical itself will surely be primarily concerned with faith and morals. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences has already issued a detailed statement which goes into far more detail on the science.

When the encyclical drops, we will hear plenty of commentary on prudential judgment; it is important to clarify what this term means. It is not properly applied to scientific knowledge of the sort that show climate change. Scientific knowledge cannot by definition be a matter of prudential judgment, since it is about “what is” and not about “what is to be done.”

Aquinas clearly states prudence, while an “intellectual virtue,” is nevertheless to be distinguished from “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding” which are about “necessary things.” By contrast, “art” and “prudence” are about “contingent things.” Art is about “things made” and prudence about “things done” (ST II-II, 47, 5). Prudence cannot be exercised without “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding,” but these latter qualities are not themselves prudence.

Thus, the proper area for debate about prudential judgment is what is to be done in the face of scientific data, not what the scientific data is. This differentiation will be especially important, because I expect the encyclical will follow the PAS statement in suggesting that overwhelming evidence suggests present climate change and future disruptions, while also noting that (to directly quote the PAS report) “The climate system is highly complex and could respond in surprising ways that have not yet been anticipated by models that project the future climate. While the actual warming could be smaller than expected, it could also be much larger, causing even more dire disruptions than those that have been identified. Prudence and justice demand that we take note of these risks and act upon them in time, for the sake of all humanity, but especially for the weak, the vulnerable, and the future generations whose wellbeing depends on our generation’s actions.”

These sorts of quotes will offer a tempting opportunity for climate “skeptics” to proof-text the document in favor of uncertainty – and in doing so, likely appeal to “prudential judgment.” But the quote very correctly indicates that the uncertainty of the science actually heightens the urgency of acting. A prudent person, faced with a large amount of information which tends one way but includes inevitable uncertainty, will not guide her future actions by placing all of her bets on the shakiest portions of the evidence and the potential-but-unknown “surprises” that might lead to less damage than seems likely. This is the very definition of imprudence. But notice this isn’t a judgment about the scientific data itself; it’s a judgment about what the scientific data would support as prudent action.

The recently-debated question of appropriate Catholic cooperation with the United Nations is a clear instance of a prudential judgment. To my mind, given that global cooperation is necessary for any reasonable action, it would seem imprudent not to cooperate with the one body that might make progress possible. One would need very weighty reasons to reject such cooperation, as well as a serious argument that such cooperation involved formal or proximate material cooperation. Nevertheless, the pope’s encyclical will reasonably prompt such a debate, even as it undoubtedly makes important prudential judgments explicit. That is the debate which should proceed from the encyclical, because it is a debate that has already advanced to the question, “what should we do about climate change?” Because the question of whether there is human-caused climate change isn’t about prudential reasoning at all. Rather, the knowledge and wisdom that we have – even with the inevitable uncertainty – leads to clarity that the least prudent course of acting is doing nothing.    

Kalief Browder's Stolen Life

As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two. 

Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.

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Mailer, Buckley & My Alma Mater

I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.

Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.

When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.

Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.

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Twin Cities archdiocese charged with child endangerment.

On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”

In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”

In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.

The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”

The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”

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"Call Me Caitlyn"

Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” in the pages of Vanity Fair this week caused a stir, well, pretty much everywhere.  Much of the commentary I saw was positive.  There were some on the left, particularly feminists, who raised questions about Jenner’s decision to embrace a highly sexualized image of femininity.  Some religious conservatives expressed sympathy to Jenner personally but joined most of their colleagues in criticizing her decision to live as a woman and undergo gender reassignment surgery.

I’m increasingly of the belief that the state of Catholic teaching on these issues is more unsettled than at first it might appear.  It’s true that a few bishops--including Pope Francis--have offered negative appraisals of “gender theory,” which is popular in transgender circles.  But this is a very new issue and I’m not sure one can appear to a clear and consistent teaching on the matter that has been universally held for a long period of time.  The Catechism is pretty much silent on the matter.

The question as I see it is whether a person with a gender identity that is at variance with their chromosomal/physical gender necessarily violates the moral law if they choose to live according to their gender identity and (although this is a separate question) ultimately undergo gender reassignment surgery.

The argument that is usually offered against the idea that these actions could be morally licit is some version of the “divine will” argument.  In this case, the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.

I think this argument quickly runs into some problems. There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance.  Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal.  I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it. 

The rejoinder, of course, is that a normal chromosomal gender (i.e. XX or XY), in and of itself, is not a “disease” that needs to be treated.  My response would be that the disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.

If we see transgenderism as a brain disorder (and, as I will note later, no means all or even most transgender activists would accept this) the question is how to treat it.  Many religious conservatives seem to assume the only morally licit answer is, through some form of therapy, to change the brain (b.t.w., even “talk therapy” does this). But the brain is an organ too.  Either way, you are changing the physical operation or structure of the human body.  I’m not clear why a person is morally obligated to choose one form of treatment over another given that there are risks and side effects associated with both.

Ultimately, the concern of religious conservatives with transgender individuals who choose to transition seems to be a fear that this is merely another triumph for expressive individualism and a rejection of the idea that gender, per Genesis 5:2,  is actually encoded in the fabric of creation.

I’m not certain that this need always be the case.  Indeed, the actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct.  They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success.  Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery.  It was not a decision motivated by ideology.

To be fair, there are a large number of transgender activists who embrace a more fluid concept of gender under the rubric of “gender theory” that may be at variance with Catholic teaching. Ironically, such a position may undermine some of their public policy goals, such as obtaining health insurance coverage for hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery.  If transgenderism is a medical condition that requires treatment, then coverage would seem appropriate.  But if one is seeking a surgical procedure merely to outwardly express a subjectively chosen identity, the case for coverage is much weaker.  Most health insurance plans do not cover cosmetic surgery.

In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation.  Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation.  Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.