A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

Climate change: responding to minimizers

Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal opinion section published “Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate” by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser.  The authors foresee that the United Nations Conference on Climate Change opening today in Paris will end in one more toothless agreement—and they are not at all unhappy about that. 

Ridley is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.  A very successful science writer, blogger, and market enthusiast, he is also a Viscount and Conservative member of the British House of Lords.  In identifying him, the Journal always notes that “he has an interest in coal mining on his family lands.”  Peiser, a social anthropologist interested in climate change “catastrophism,” directs something called the Global Warming Policy Forum. 

As a pessimistic student of politics, I fear that their negative appraisal of the Paris conference may prove accurate.  But as a total non-student of climate science, I am in need of help.  Little in the backgrounds and apparent ideological commitments of these writers leads me to give their arguments the benefit of the doubt.  But should I simply dismiss them? 

Go online, I tell myself, and just enter in the authors’ names, the Wall Street Journal, and the name and date of the article.  Within a day or two, substantial critiques will pop up. 

No such luck. 

I entertain two hypotheses.  Because my online skills are weak (that’s not a hypothesis, it’s a fact), the substantial critiques are there but lurking out of my sight or the sight of anyone similarly unskilled.  Alternatively, those worried about global warming just don’t consider these people—or the reach of the Wall Street Journal!—serious enough to mount a response. 

Either hypothesis raises questions about how we conduct a rational debate about a subject of great importance but demanding some degree of evaluating claims to expertise. 

Here are some of the claims that Ridley and Peiser make. My instinct is to reject them, at least many of them.  But I need help. 

Read more

Wilson Revisited, Revised... and Rescinded?

While last week I mused about the future legacy of the current president, news stories this week, including a front-page article in the Times, detail the crumbling reputation of a former one. Woodrow Wilson, 13th president of Princeton University and 28th President of the United States, turns out to have expressed – and enforced -- racist sentiments that were widespread in his day. Should Princeton strike his name from places of honor on campus?

As the Times reports, a group of Princeton students calling itself the Black Justice League recently put up posters highlighting racist remarks made by Wilson, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” – and, more concretely, that it find a new name for its renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as for Wilson College, a residence hall on campus. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to discuss these demands with university trustees, and meanwhile promised to remove a mural of Wilson from the residence hall dining room – and has caught flak from culture warriors who see such responses as craven capitulation.

I’ve addressed this topic twice before in this space – once concerning symbols of the Confederacy and the controversy over Calhoun College at Yale, and again concerning Lord Jeffery Amherst, the mascot of my alma mater (update: last week, according the Times, the Amherst faculty voted unanimously to jettison Lord Jeff). But the renaming movement extends well beyond campus brouhahas over political correctness. It points up the challenge of how a society goes about altering its memorials to reflect evolving beliefs and changed politics. And that’s a fascinating subject.

Read more

Brett Foster, 1973-2015

It is a sad fact that a writer’s death is often what gets us to read him or her in the first place. We put off reading a poet or a novelist, telling ourselves that we’ll get to the work eventually, that the next book will be the one we try. And then, only when we know that there won’t be a next book, we finally start reading. 

Over the last few years, several readers who I trust praised the work of Brett Foster. I borrowed his first, wonderfully titled poetry collection, The Garbage Eater (2011), from the library last year, but life—classes to prepare, papers to grade, essays to write—intruded. The book sat unread on my bookshelf for several months before I brought it back to the library, promising myself that I’d return to it soon.

Two weeks ago, Foster died at the age of forty-two. An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Foster was a poet-scholar. In addition to publishing poems in Raritan, Salamander, The New Criterion, and many other places, he translated the work of Cecco Angiolieri (a contemporary of Dante), taught courses on Donne and the Renaissance lyric, and produced scholarship on Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others. As with the best poet-scholars, Foster’s verse was sustained by his research, and his research was informed by his verse. Both circled around the same issues: literary tradition, Christian theology, the meaning of Scripture. He was beloved by his students and colleagues. You can read moving remembrances here and here and here.

Last week, after hearing of Foster’s death, I checked out The Garbage Eater once again. It is as remarkable as I had heard. Fitting for someone so versed in poetic tradition, Foster regularly shows the possibilities enabled by formal constraint, using some of the most simultaneously restrictive and liberating forms available to the poet—the sestina, the sonnet, the rondeau. Just as varied as the poems’ forms are their subjects. Foster writes of snow days and of Advent calendars (“You’re left / with only days, bare and perforated, / a liturgy of doors, perfect symbol”), of having tea with John Milton and, in a poem that delighted this baseball fan, of the former Kansas City Royals closer Dan Quisenberry: “He’d be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber: / those summer doubleheaders in the grim bubble of the Metrodome.”

Foster is a superb poet of place, writing about spaces both sacred and profane. In one poem, “At the City Church of San Francisco,” Foster asks, “How to preach with so much that’s beautiful // around us?” describing the “Golden Gate in the distance, those orange altars, / the bay beyond with its long, silver wings, / and perfect bursts of plant life everywhere.” In another, he opens with the speaker’s mean upbringing in “a backwater / cavity in the South, a rat-shit / state of peach-eating race haters, / debutante belles, and chain gangs / singing their exhausted souls / back to the stockade yard.” There is even a poem that takes place inside an Olive Garden:

No Menicus-threaded grove restful with panpipes and shepherd life,

just the chain restaurant off Sherman Street. But the manager

intends to make me think so—pastas on the poster, carafes

of Mantuan wine lined up by shades of red and gold and white.

In Palo Alto, Sunday sunlight stimulates the atmosphere

as do the lively, prerecorded violins’ piazza overtures.

Cormac McCarthy has said that the only writers worth reading are those who “deal with issues of life and death”—that is, those who take seriously the fact that life is always shadowed by death.

Foster’s poems reside within the shadow of death. The Garbage Eater begins with these lines, precise and enjambed:

Fear of dying, fear of death:

those phobias came easy, shaped

nightly by a little boy’s breath


talking out a clockwork afterlife

with parents till I fell asleep.

And it ends with these lines from “Longing, Lenten,” similarly precise, similarly enjambed, similarly concerned with how we live our mortal condition:

… The rest

of the blessed ash has vanished to a gray

amorphousness, to symbolize … not much.

Except a wish for those hallowed moments

to be followed by sustaining confidence.

Except spirit, which means to shun its listless

weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest

prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.

But in between these death-haunted bookends, Foster fills his collection with that which sustains: work and love, the dance of the mind, senses, and soul as they encounter the world. Here, for instance, is a sonnet, “Devotion: For Our Bodies,” that describes the joy found in work and in language: 

Yes love, I must confess I’m at it again,

struggling in vain with my Greek declensions.

I know it’s common, but I want to show

you what I found in Praxeis Apostolon,


chapter one, verse twenty-four: this exquisite

epithet, kardiognosta. Forget briefly its context, that the Eleven,

genuflecting, implore the Lord to give


wisdom. Between Justus and Matthias,

who replaces Judas? Let this word pass

to private sharpness toward love’s dominion.

Let me kiss it across your collarbones—


knower of hearts. Its sweetness fills my mouth

and our twin lots, as if they’d chosen both.

“The Foreman at Rest” ends with the desire to remember the world in all its particularity: “Thirsting for detail, / I want to notice the juice / on that pear, half-eaten and still / glistening in the lamplight.” “Passage” includes several litanies of human achievement—“water clocks, mercy seats, clay tablets / of Mesopotamia, lock and key, Jericho”—each a sign of “bright wonder transumed from modesty.”

As “Via Negativa” puts it, poetry is a form of celebration, even when what it celebrates is unassuming:

This could have been many things: the barren

field of elegy, a mass sung at Lourdes,

or some harmonious bed made of chords.

Instead, it celebrates its reticence.

The loss Foster’s family and friends feel right now is immense. So are the gifts that he offered—in his life, in his teaching, and in his poetry.



A Visit to The Museum of Feelings

Two blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on a plaza facing the East River, behind a gleaming mall, sits a temporary museum. Or that is what Glade, a brand of SC Johnson, is calling it. The Museum of Feelings is housed in a small building with shifting colored lights projected on its white walls. Tuesday night, its opening night, a young man in black clothes ushers confused people inside or makes them wait at the door when it becomes too crowded.

The subway advertisements for the Museum promise only a URL, a street address, and the dates the exhibit is open. If your curiosity is sufficiently piqued by these ads or the Facebook event and you visit, the first thing you are cued to do is to create a MoodLens — a “living, emotional portrait that changes to reflect feelings,” the page explains. If you click “Get Started,” your computer’s built-in camera will photograph your face and with another click, your computer’s microphone can pick up your voice. This data is collected along with the weather in your current location and the “general feelings on social media in your region” to calculate your mood.

Read more

Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

I am hardly the first to roll my eyes about the oddity of the “Holiday Books” almost ostentatious neglect of religion.  It’s long been an annual joke among many people who believe that religion deserves thoughtful, knowledgeable explorations beyond the usual pressure points where it intersects with (a) violence; (b) sex; (c) politics; (d) celebrity; and (e) greed.  Oh, and did I mention violence, sex, and politics?  

Granted, the “Holiday Books” issue is essentially a cash-cow, chockfull of ads and reviews for gifty-ish books in categories like Travel, Photography, Pop Music, Humor, Cooking, Gardening, and Hollywood.  “Holiday,” in effect, means hobby, avocation, entertainment, recreation, and so on.  It certainly doesn’t mean anything to do with the beliefs and sentiments that gave birth to these holidays.  Don’t imagine that anyone celebrating those holidays might be grateful for books addressing those very beliefs and sentiments.  And might shell out good money for them. 

There’s no war against Christmas here.  “Holiday Books” is just a seasonal expression of the Book Review’s normal practice. Which is to feature every commercial press’s Washington memoir or big-name fiction while ignoring any university (or especially religious) press’s significant probing into the relationship of faith and reason.  Last Sunday’s front-page review, I’m afraid, was the exception proving the rule.   

The “Holiday Books” issue is not all gifties, however.  It usually lists “100 Notable Books,” of the year, half from Fiction and Poetry, half from Nonfiction. Profound religious and spiritual questions always run like seams of rich ore through that Fiction and Poetry—and through some of the Nonfiction, too.  Such is the human condition. 

But in 2014 was there one book, one single book, of theology, or of philosophy of religion, or of religious history, sociology, biography, or art, worthy, in the eyes of the Book Review’s editors, to be listed among those fifty Nonfiction notables?  


Maybe 2015 will be different.  This is the season of hope.

UPDATE, November 28: The "100 Notable Books of 2015" has arrived, and I'm afraid the exception did prove the rule.  Augustine, the biography by Robin Lane Fox was on the Non-Fiction list.  The only other book that might possibly qualify was Witches of America by Alex Mar, "journalistic profiles of fascinating moern practitioners of the occult."  Perhaps readerss have their own nominees. 


The Green Road

Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading  Irish  novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?

She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field  - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.

The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.

The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and  Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?

Read more

Grief and Gratitude at Thanksgiving

I was at the women’s medium security prison in Framingham Sunday where I celebrated the Thanksgiving liturgy for them.  Presiding at Framingham for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mothers Day is, as you might imagine, rather sad.

I began by telling them that that day was the 16th anniversary of the death of my niece Megan who died at 19 after a 3-year battle against leukemia.  Three days earlier it was the six-month anniversary of Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.’s sudden death at 46 years of age.  Lúcás is my best friend.

I told them I had talked with my sister, Deb, Megan’s mom, about how much I was grieving over Lúcás’s death this thanksgiving.  I told her that I realized I would mourn him the rest of my life and she simply said, yes.

The women at Framingham felt comforted that I knew what grief was like at Thanksgiving. 

Read more

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: Favorite False Friends

Kaitlin Campbell has just posted links to the new issue of Commonweal (December 4), with a sobering and remarkably direct critique of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that you are unlikely to read in the MSM. I hope all the political junkies here will read it and comment. False Friends by Vanni Cappelli.

Latest Issue, Now Live

We've just posted our full December 4 issue to the website. Among the highlights: Andrew Bacevich remembers Benedictine monks and boyhood friends from the monastery school he attended fifty years ago; Vanni Cappelli examines two post-WWII pillars of U.S. foreign policy—Washington's military funding to Pakistan, and its support of the Saudi Arabian monarchy—implicated as root causes in Islamic extremism today; and Celia Wren reviews the documentary film Chaplains, about the work of religious professionals working in all areas of the secular world—the prison system, NASCAR, Congress, Hollywood, Tyson Foods, the military, and more. For the rest of the issue, see the full table of contents.

And, stay tuned... Soon we'll be publishing our annual guide to gift-worthy books by our Christmas Critics. (If you can't wait, you can see what last year's Christmas Critics recommended here.)

The Vatican Indictment and Press Freedom

Some years back, a representative of the Holy See spoke out in a United Nations General Assembly session about the importance of freedom of the press:

the right to freedom of thought and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to exchange ideas and information and the consequent freedom of the press: the observance of this right is necessary for the fulfillment of each person, for the respect of cultures and for the progress of science.

These comments in support of press freedom were in step with various church documents of the post-Vatican II era. But with the Vatican’s decision to indict two Italian journalists -- Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi – for using leaked documents in two books that evidently embarrassed and angered powerful people in the Holy See, we take a step back in time.

To 1832, for example, when Pope Gregory XVI assailed the “harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatsoever.” Or to Pope Piux IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which faulted “openly and publicly manifesting whatsoever opinions and thoughts.”

Simply put, this indictment is an attempt at censorship. It won’t work: It will multiply the sales of the books in question, for starters. It will invigorate other journalists to probe further. And it undermines the church’s effort to champion human rights, including the right to freedom of religion.


Read more


So I’m at a golf fundraiser earlier this fall for a scholarship in the name of a beloved high-school classmate who died of cancer some years back. Before teeing off, a group of us chatted pleasantly... until we lurched onto politics, and one of my old friends, a bright and cheerful person and successful money manager in her mid-50s, observed that in her opinion, Obama has been a terrible president – “the worst president in my memory, anyway.”

Really, I wanted to say; does your memory not extend seven years? But I am not notably equable in such discussions, and there at the country club, at a fundraiser to endow a scholarship for students of color (our late friend was African-American), I didn’t feel like engaging in a pitched battle over the merits of first black President in U.S. history. I did however humbly promise Jane that I would at some point send her an email “conclusively refuting your appraisal of Obama.”

So, Jane, let me take out the three-wood and take a swing at it.

Read more

Black Millennials & the Racial Wealth Gap

Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”

Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.

Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.

I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is calledprivilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:

When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.

Read more


“I would like to have a papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” declared the 19th-century ultramontanist William George Ward. Are we currently suffering a case of liberal neo-ultramontanism?  Or quasi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or semi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or some such?      

Many others have raised that question, but most of them don’t like what Pope Francis has been doing.  I do. That includes the restoration of collegiality in the two synods on the family, regardless of the tremors caused by truly open discussion.  That obviously includes Francis’s efforts to reform Vatican offices.  That includes the remarkable series of talks he has given this fall on topics ranging from change in the church to “synodality.”

At the same time, I have to admit that liberal reception of Laudato Si’ has not been free of what used to be called “creeping infallibilism.”  And not every statement of Francis is beyond reasonable criticism.  And, in all honesty, although the homilies in my liberal parish are quite fine, I’m wearied by hearing Francis referred to in the pulpit more often than Jesus.   

What makes me raise this question now, however, is more subtle, the coverage of the meeting this last week of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  My impression is that the overriding framework for covering the meeting was this: Are the bishops aligning their agenda and priorities with that of Francis? 

That’s a perfectly legitimate framework.  (Of course, there are other possible ones, like whether the bishops are aligning their agenda and priorities with the needs of American Catholics or the challenges of American culture.)  The chosen framework has more than a whiff, however, of an ultramontanist assumption, that the bishops should be aligned with the pope and there’s something wrong with them if they are not.

Personally, I believe that there’s a lot wrong with the bishops’ conference, and a lot of it would be repaired if the bishops were closer to Francis’s outlook.  But not if it means turning on a dime.  Not if it means just following the leader, as has happened too often in the past. 

The liberal neo-ultramontanist impulse is understandable. 

Read more

The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

Read more

#portesoeuvertes or #portesfermees?

Shortly after word spread of the carnage in Paris, a column by an American expat living in that city appeared on the International New York Times website. Pamela Druckerman typically writes about cultural issues, such as how French parents raise independent and interesting children largely by ignoring them.

I've long been a fan of Druckerman's witty and insightful commentary. But her column this time was somber, as she described the real-time reaction at a dinner party where she was a guest Friday night.

One paragraph, in particular, troubled me: "French people are tweeting #portesouvertes, to help people stranded on the streets. We all agree that this sounds nuts: Who would open their doors right now? The news says the gunmen are still on the loose. Police are warning people not to go outside."

I'm not about to criticize anyone's desire to "shelter in locked place" under those terrifying circumstances, nor do I imagine that Druckerman and friends ignored strangers pleading for help outside their door. But when innocents are being targeted, it seems to me that #portesouvertes is exactly the right response for anyone with the means to provide sanctuary.

In another dark time, many Europeans closed their doors to Jewish neighbors fleeing Nazi persecution. But some opened up, at risk to their own lives, and these are the heroes we rightfully honor today.

Interestingly, in a prior column (headlined "Paradise Lost") Druckerman had expressed disappointment that her beloved France hasn't done enough to accept and integrate Syrian refugees, many of whom are confined by circumstance in virtual ghettos that are ideal breeding grounds for ISIS recruits.

Globally we are in a time, and at a place, where it's morally imperative to open our doors, windows, hearts and homes to refugees fleeing some of the most barbaric villains in human history. Yet here in America we have craven Republican politicians, including presidential candidates, governors, and the Speaker of the House, campaigning to slam our doors shut. #portesfermees.

Speaker Paul Ryan says he only wants a temporary halt to admitting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern battlegrounds, while we figure out how to keep out every last bad guy. But he knows perfectly well we'll never figure that out. Meanwhile, countless innocent refugees suffer and die.

Read more

New Stories on the Website

We've posted some new stories to the website. Briefly: The editors weigh in on the terrorists attacks in Paris that "were not exactly a surprise"; Robert Mickens, in his latest letter from Rome, writes on how the pope went on with "business as usual" at the Vatican by—among other things—inviting Muslims to participate in the upcoming Jubilee year and giving a Eucharistic chalice to a Lutheran pastor; and John Wilkins contributes his analysis to our series of responses to the Synod on the Familly, focusing on what effects the "synod experience" might have on bishops who attended, and the hope this generates for the future of a Vatican II church.

For the full series of responses, including those by Catherine Wolff, Karen Kilby, Mary Lee Freeman, and Christopher Ruddy, visit our Synod on the Family reading list, where you'll also find—among other things—dispatches from Grant Gallicho in Rome during the synod, and a video of Commonweal's September panel discussion before the synod with David Gibson, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Cathleen Kaveny, and Margaret Farley. (Were there prophets among us?)

'The Beginning of the End'

The current issue of Commonweal features "The Beginning of the End" by regular contributor Paul Elie. This piece also appears in The Good Book, a new collection of essays by well-known writers about their favorite parts of the Bible. Among the other contributors: Lydia Davis, Robert Pinsky, André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Lynch (another Commonweal contributor), and Tobias Wolff. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik introduces the collection.

In the "The Beginning of the End," Elie writes about the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus and his disciples cross the brook Kidron:

The passage, at the beginning of Chapter 18, is akin to what photographers after Henri Cartier-Bresson call “the decisive moment.” It’s the moment when the hide-glue cut-and-paste job that is this gospel enters narrative time once and for all. It’s the beginning of the end, a giant step into the drama of crime and punishment whose end is the reason the story is still told.

The gospels are exalted texts, daunting to write about. So much converges there and is shown to be complex and paradoxical. But the crossing of the brook Kidron is a piece of the action that stands alone, a slice of time as distinct as anything in the New Testament.

Who really “understands” the Gospels? I can’t say that I do (though I can’t help but try). But the crossing-over into narrative time: this is something I can begin to understand. The crossing of the brook Kidron: this I can approach undaunted.[...]

Even by gospel standards the scene at the brook Kidron is exceptionally brief. It takes up a third of a page.[...] Jesus and his disciples cross a valley and enter a garden, and Judas musters a militia and goes after them, and Jesus puts a question to them and they reply, and he replies in turn—all this in a hundred words, in a scene lit with lanterns and torches and shadowed by the threat of violence.

The scene seems even tighter when read in sequence with what has come before. This is because what has come before is the Last Supper, and the Last Supper in John’s gospel is the longest episode (nearly five chapters) and most verbose one (if you doubt it, take a look) in all the Gospels.

Elie's essay is about many things: the seams between time and eternity, the way narrative time expands and contracts, and some of the many ways great artists have represented the Passion. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach:

With [St. John's Passion] Bach would see his own work magnified, so to speak—all his talents concentrated on a setting of the story of God put to the test.

The grand, doleful opening chorus; the Evangelist’s plainspoken recitation; the sonorous voices of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and the others; the crowd, wide-eyed and sharp-tongued, exultant, fierce, righteous, astonished; the rueful piety of the individual believer as expressed in a sacred aria; the chorales, softened by five centuries of Sundays; and all this over the polished stones on the streambed of the orchestra—this musical plan, this set of patterns in satisfying alternation, is so right as to seem permanent, and makes it seem as if the St. John Passion is a sacred work that existed “in the beginning.” And yet the Passion form was substantially new to Bach. The cantatas he was writing were settings of discrete gospel passages: adages, sayings, and the like. The Passion text was a story. Where the cantatas are slices of the Christian drama, the Passion is the thing itself; where the cantatas follow the seasons of the year, the Passion (it seems) happens on a particular Friday afternoon. Composing a Passion to be heard at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Good Friday—Friday, April 7, 1724—Bach entered narrative time once and for all.

You can read the whole essay here. The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner and published by Simon & Schuster, is now available in bookstores everywhere. Just in time for Christmas.

A Gem from Down Under

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but got distracted by more controversial subjects. So let me gratefully relapse into the unexceptionable task of recommending a terrific young novelist. I hadn’t heard of Evie Wyld until last winter, when I joined a public radio discussion of novels featured in the 2015 Tournament of Books. In a competition that included bestselling author David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings, Wyld’s dark-horse novel, All the Birds, Singing, won a lot of fans.

Wyld, who is thirty-five, grew up in Australia and in London, where she went to university and where she currently runs a small bookstore. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin literary award (the biggest literary prize after the Nobel), and won her a place on Granta Magazine’s list of Best Young British Novelists. All the Birds, Singing won her another slew of awards. Still early in her career, she’s shaping up to be the kind of writer who gets great reviews, racks up prizes, and sometimes doesn’t sell very much. But Anthony Doerr was that kind of writer, too, until he wrote All the Light.

All the Birds, Singing is the rare novel that’s artfully constructed, trenchantly insightful about human nature and predicaments, and deeply moving. All that, and it’s a mystery, too. Wyld interweaves two first-person narratives told by the same woman, Jake Whyte. One strand, in the present day, details the attacks made by a mysterious predator on Whyte’s sheep on the remote island farm off the coast of England, where she is living alone and lonely, for reasons that are themselves a mystery, in her middle age. The second strand takes up her story at some much earlier date, years ago in Australia, where we find her working as a roustabout sheep shearer in a team of traveling farm workers. The temporal structure of the novel is notably intricate: the present section, in England, is set in the past tense, and its events proceed forward in a conventional manner; the past sections, in Australia, are set in the present tense, and proceed backward – digging, bit by bit, deeper into Jake’s suffering past, in which she has been homeless, endured other bitter hardships I will not disclose here, and received dreadful wounds on her back. What are these scars? Why did she flee home?

Read more

A Nation of Refugees (e.g. Cruz and Rubio) and Immigrants (Most of the Rest of Us, e.g. Ryan and McConnell)

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Migration: "I am disturbed, however, by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves—violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization." Whole Statement

Politico: "Christian groups break with GOP over Syrian refugees"

NYTimes: "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors to Syrian Refugees"

Vatican's Disaster in the Making: Probe of Journalists

One of the many interesting things about the new movie Spotlight is that it shows how slow the Boston Globe was to chase the story that it ultimately published in 2002 about the systematic coverup of  clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The newspaper had gotten similar information five years earlier, it turned out, but editors who either felt a connection to the Catholic Church or were otherwise reluctant to offend a mostly Catholic readership had edged it aside. Under the leadership of a new editor, the paper sought and reported the truth.

This comes to mind as the Vatican pursues the disastrous course of criminally investigating two Italian journalists who wrote books based on documents leaked from the Vatican. What is this but an effort to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth?

Respect for a free press -- a media free to report the truth -- requires that news reporters not be coerced into giving up their confidential sources. Most states in the United States have shield laws that offer reporters some measure of protection. There is a great need for a federal version of that law, but even without it, procedures the Justice Department has in place make it unusual for reporters to be subpoenaed -- much less placed under criminal investigation themselves for reporting the news. Italy also has protections for reporters. Vatican City does not.

There have been many fine Vatican statements about the duty of the news media to seek the truth, including addresses by Pope Francis, but they don't mean much if the church is going to be bent on criminalizing investigative reporting. The Vatican should stop  this investigation immediately. If it can't do so for the right reason -- to respect the role of a free press -- then it should consider the public relations disaster that would develop if it files criminal charges against these journalists.